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Mobile Connections: iPhone jailbreak king points to the limitations of the platform app stores

Mobile Connections: iPhone jailbreak king points to the limitations of the platform app stores

mobileconnections_0Las Vegas - While fellow Mobile Connections keynoter Aaron Hillegass chose to focus on some of the bigger themes of mobile development (MobileDevPro: Big Nerd Ranch CEO turns a skeptical eye to Android’s success, HTML5), Cydia founder and iPhone jailbreaker Jay Freeman focused on mobile dev’s nuts and bolts—and there are an awful lot of nuts and bolts.

In one enormously complex flowchart, Freeman attempted to map out the complexities of the mobile application marketing, touching on everything from byzantine international tax laws and dealing with teenage software pirates (they’re smart, bored and have much different priorities than you if they’re willing to spend days cracking a one dollar application—better to appease them) to the advantages and pitfalls of dealing with the platform app stores and operator portals. If there were any obscure detail pertaining to app development, marketing, billing or distribution, Freeman has probably thought of it.

freeman2_0But what’s most interesting is the conditions under which Freeman has had deal with those minutiae. Unlike the independent app stores serving the Android, BlackBerry, Palm and Symbian communities, the Cydia app and package store is targeted solely to jailbroken iPhones and iPads, over which Apple typically lords through the iTunes App Store. The Cydia store is by no means illegal—at least not in the U.S.—by Apple has little tolerance for it or any other jailbroken modifications to iOS. Apple has declared that jailbreaking violates the iPhone’s warranty and every time it releases a software update it wipes the device clean of any unauthorized changing, effectively re-jailing its iPhones.

Still Cydia has been a remarkable successful despite Apple’s attempts to rein it in. Freeman estimates that 10% of all global iPhones are jailbroken—mostly in the U.S. and China—and the majority of those use Cydia’s services. Whenever Apple releases a new software update, those numbers fall dramatically as their jailbreaks are wiped  by the new OS updates, but Freeman said those numbers gradually creep back up to 10% after the OS is again cracked and users re-jailbreak their phones.

Those Cydia services include paid and free app downloads in the traditional sense, but much of what Cydia develops and promotes are modification packages to iPhones that change the icons, backgrounds and user interface capabilities of the device. For instance one package allows a user to instantly activate the iPhone’s camera with a double tap on the home screen without having to unlock the device. Cydia has actually supplied services and unlocked features in the iPhone long before Apple officially released them. For instance, Cydia supplied MMS before Apple and turned the iPhone into a mobile hotspot well ahead of the iPhone 4 supporting such capabilities.

Though Freeman touched upon nearly every possible aspect of the mobile app market in his speech, there seemed to be one over-riding theme: the app store models set up by the platform providers are simply too limiting -- leading to huge in popularity for alternate app stores like Cydia, either with official sanction or not. Many of those limitations are driven by technology, policies, logistics and business interests. But ultimately they put big restrictions on the natural evolution of apps while providing few of the benefits they purport to.

For instance, Freeman pointed to the issue of security. The app stores are supposed to be a safe place free of malware, but Apple and Google’s vastly different review policies produce the same result: they let nasty applications in. Apple supposedly has the strictest review process, testing how each application uses permissions and APIs, Freeman said, but that’s not enough to determine if an app is malicious.

“They don’t have a way of figuring out if an app will do something bad,” Freeman said. “Apple doesn’t look at the source code of your app. They look at its behavior.” Meanwhile Google takes the opposite approach, which gets it off the hook from a legal standpoint, Freeman said. “Google’s strategy is to let everything in,” Freeman said. “If you’re not looking at anything you’re not legally responsible for anything that goes in.”

If a problem app is discovered and reported, Google issues take down requests, which usually results in the removal of the app in Android market. At the end of the day, though, both Android Market and iTunes wind up letting in malware.

While Freeman focused on nitty-gritty development issues at his keynote, he was much more outspoken at a panel discussion on Monday over the future winners in the platform wars, as were his fellow panelists Big Nerd Ranch CEO Hillegass, RIM director of alliances and developer relations Tyler Lessard, Rackspace’s Robert Scoble and Microsoft Digital Marketing Platform Group Director Romi Mahajan.

While the panel never really settled the question of which platform developers should bet on—a question moderator Paul Thurrott said would be impossible to answer since the mobile market would be dominated by multiple operator systems—they did tackle topics ranging from the role of the carriers in mobile development to how useful cross-platform development tools like HTML5 would be in future applications.

When asked by Thurrott if operators were a necessary evil or just plain evil, Freeman defended the operators saying they were in a “horrendous” situation, in which their network deployment costs were escalating along with smartphone users hunger for mobile data. Operators are either forced to adopt metered data plans, which no one likes, or look to developers and content suppliers to help subsidize bandwidth delivery costs, which developers either won’t do or can’t do due to the app distribution and billing models in place today.

Hillegass said that operators aren’t standing in the way of innovation but they’re certainly not encouraging it. They’re primary goal isn’t to sell great apps, but collect data plan fees, so developers should look elsewhere if they’re looking for a partner with which to innovate. RIM’s Lessard said operators had fallen off the map in the recent years due to the huge adoption curve of smartphones by tech savvy prosumers who see little need for the carriers beyond as a bitpipe. As the mass market gets their hands on smartphones, the carriers will re-emerge as critical suppliers of data services to the not-so –tech savvy, Lessard said.

The issue of HTML5 dominated much of the panel’s time with RIM, which just launched an HTML5 development program to drive apps onto the BlackBerry Playbook, coming out strongly in favor of Web development as a powerful engine for mobile apps. Big Nerd Ranch’s Hillegass, who already made his reservations about HTML5 clear in his keynote Monday, said it came down to simple user experience. “If you write an HTML version and I write a native version, I will always write the better app,” Hillegass said.

As the panel wrapped up, an audience member posed the question of what monsters the smartphone and mobile applications have invariable produced. For a bunch of app junkies, what do they fear most about the apps they’re creating? Loss of privacy and security were Scoble and Lessard’s respective answers, while Hillegass declaimed the loss of boredom. Smartphones allow him to much on “Twitter Fritos” when he should be enjoying a full meal, he said. Microsoft’s Mahajan’s answer was the most nuanced though: in age of presence awareness, social location and instant digital gratification, human beings are required to be unnaturally honest. You can’t call in sick to work or lie about your age, Mahajan said: “It takes away the little white lie.”


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