In Defense of Apple’s ‘Crystal Prison’

In Defense of Apple’s ‘Crystal Prison’

I typically support the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They do an excellent job of standing up for consumers and defending various digital freedoms and liberties. One of their most recent statements, however, has left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I will do my best to explain their position, and address it with my own series of counter-arguments.

The Argument

As part of spirited proposal advocating a “mobile bill of rights“, the EFF has unleashed an all-out attack against Apple, claiming that the company is unfairly restricting their customers and stifling innovation, and demanding that Apple “open its platforms for those who wish to tinker, tweak and innovate with their internals.”

Referring to Apple’s iOS devices as “crystal prisons,” the EFF states:

…while Apple’s products have many virtues, they are marred by an ugly set of restrictions on what users and programmers can do with them. This is most especially true of iOS, though other Apple products sometimes suffer in the same way.

Apple’s recent products, especially their mobile iOS devices, are like beautiful crystal prisons, with a wide range of restrictions imposed by the OS, the hardware, and Apple’s contracts with carriers as well as contracts with developers. Only users who can hack or “jailbreak” their devices can escape these limitations.

The foundation bases their proposal on a comment from Steve Wozniak, who suggested that Apple should open up their devices and allow users to install any app they like, tinker with sensitive system settings, and so forth.

Much of their argument revolves around how Apple handles their iOS devices, maintaining a high degree of control over what parts of the OS users can access, and what sorts of apps they can install. The EFF explains this in their own words as follows:

You may have purchased an iPad, but unless you’ve exploited a vulnerability in iOS to jailbreak it, there are many things you cannot install on it. The App Store has thousands of apps to choose from, but your choices are limited to apps that both Apple has approved, and which can function without”root” or “administrator” privileges.

The organization suggests that Apple should completely open up iOS, and not only allow users to access the file system, but also allow users to install any third party app of their choice, as well as the ability to install alternative platforms on their device, such as Android.

In addition to claims made about iOS, the EFF states that Apple is headed down the same “dangerous” road in iOS with the upcoming Gatekeeper restriction system that will become available when OS X Mountain Lion launches later this summer.

The Rebuttal

The EFF’s argument has a variety of problems, which I aim to address by first directly stating several of their points (emphasis is my own), and then pointing out concerns that I have with each assertion.

Apple has been known to reject or remove apps from sale because of their content […] and for being capable of executing code that Apple can’t approve.

It seems that the EFF’s main concern is that Apple refuses to allow users of iOS devices to install third-party apps. It’s important to note, however that there are very good reasons for doing so. The main reason is to protect the security of users and to maintain the stability of the user experience.

The benefit of this is clear: While Android (an “open” platform) is plagued by an ever-increasing sea of often dangerous malware (which often directly targets sensitive financial or personal information of users), iOS has yet to see a single instance of malware. Is Apple allowing users the ability to install third-party apps really worth risking the safety and security of their customers?

The EFF also notes that many third-party apps are available through Cydia, and can be downloaded and used by those who jailbreak their devices, but they make some odd claims about jailbreaking and the reasons that Apple doesn’t like it:

Since jailbreaking is so useful, why doesn’t Apple let their customers (or at least their technically inclined customers) do it? One reason is the profits from the App Store. Apple keeps 30% of the money from each app or in-app-purchase sold through its App Store […] Locking down iOS helps Apple maintain their monopoly on software sales for iOS.

This is simply misguided. Apple’s disapproval of jailbreaking has little to do with money, and a whole lot to do with preserving user experience. Jailbroken devices have a tendency to become buggy and less stable than devices with stock firmware from Apple.

Most users would not understand if their devices stopped behaving the way they expect, or accept a device that no longer performs the way it originally did due to the fact that they have installed third-party software, which may be buggy and inefficient, open security holes, or reduce the overall performance of their device.

The EFF goes on to target OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, which they believe imposes a similar set of shackles on users:

…Apple is building more of the restrictions that it pioneered with iOS into Mac OS X for laptops and desktops. Apple started running the Mac App Store in early 2011 to sell Mac software. Like the iOS App Store, Apple takes a 30% cut of all software sold. The upcoming version of Mac OS X, Mountain Lion, will reportedly include warning messages that strongly discourage users from installing apps from sources other than the Mac App Store.

What the EFF is referring to is a new security system built into OS X 10.8 called Gatekeeper. This allows the user to choose whether they want their Mac to only run apps from the Mac App Store, to run Mac App Store apps and signed apps, or to run all third-party apps. The service defaults to running both sighed apps and Mac App Store apps.

Unfortunately, the EFF gets a lot of details wrong about Gatekeeper. They claim that, since most users will select the Mac App Store only setting, developers with apps outside of the Mac App Store will suffer. What they fail to recognize, however, is that users can easily bypass Gatekeeper settings for any particular app, even an unsigned app, by simply right-clicking on the app and choosing the Open command. This removes Gatekeeper’s control over that particular app.

Wrapping it Up

These are just a few of the issues – there are still concerns about offering warranties and customers for altered devices, and many other topics of discussion besides.

Many of the EFF’s descriptions and claims about Apple and their platforms don’t accurately represent the reality behind Apple’s platforms. But despite the fact that they get some of the details wrong, and that their intentions are good, the biggest point they are missing is that of consumer choice.

  1. If a user does not like the restrictions of iOS, they can (1) jailbreak, or (2) choose another device that runs Android or another platform.
  2. If a user does not like Gatekeeper, they can disable it. They can also allow any app of their choice to run outside the limits of Gatekeeper, regardless of their initial choice of settings.

The fact of the matter is, despite the “closed” nature of iOS (or, as the EFF argues, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion), an ever-increasing number of users are flocking to the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Nobody is forcing them to do this. They are choosing Apple products of their own free will.

If users don’t like what Apple is doing, they can choose Windows-based computers and Android-based mobile devices. The fact that so many users stick with Apple means that many users don’t mind the measures that Apple is taking to protect them.

If the EFF really wanted to defend the rights of consumers, and really wanted to defend consumer choice, they would leave Apple alone and let users make the choice for themselves rather than attempting to bully Apple into opening up their platforms.

As much as I typically support the EFF, they’re way off base on this one, and are ignoring the crucial fact that users are choosing Apple of their own free will. Indeed, suggesting that Apple make their platforms open is actually restricting consumer choice by eliminating their ability to choose the safety and security of the “walled garden” or “crystal prison.”