Apple’s Heavy Hand

Recently, eWEEK Labs has been putting a handful of high-profile smartphones through their paces, which has led us to consider what elements would comprise the ideal business smartphone.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the physical characteristics of a device, there’s more to an effective device than the slimness of its chassis or the thumb-friendliness of its miniature keyboard.

As with any computing device, a smartphone is only as good as its software, and the most suitable smartphones shine not only for their out-of-the-box bits, but for their amenability to expansion through third party applications.

When I reviewed Apple’s iPhone 3G recently, I was nearly impressed enough by the device’s combination of physical virtues, excellent bundled applications, and newfound openness to third party works to brand the popular handset as the best of its breed. Indeed, when my colleague Joe Wilcox described the iPhone 2.0 launch as the start of a compelling new platform, I was hard pressed to disagree.

After further consideration, what tempered my enthusiasm for the iPhone was its oddly aggressive attachment to Apple’s music store front end, iTunes. It’s hard to expect IT administrators to deploy the heavy-set, consumer-oriented application for all its iPhone users, but since iTunes is a sole route through which critical system and bundled application updates can reach the device, there’s no way around this requirement.

Considering that Apple’s 2.0 firmware release ran alongside the debut of some fledgling enterprise deployment tools for the iPhone, I expected that Apple would, in time, untether its impressive smartphone from iTunes to better meet enterprise needs. Failing that, I assumed, third parties would emerge to help emancipate the iPhone from iTunes.

I appear to have assumed incorrectly, not for a lack of enterprising developers to cut the iTunes cord, but due to Apple’s unwillingness to allow it.

Apple, which reserves the right to ban malware or otherwise inappropriate applications from its users’ iPhone devices, recently vetoed an app on the grounds that it duplicates iTunes’ podcast-fetching capabilities.

In fact, more than just duplicate iTunes functionality, the offending application, called Podcaster, improves on iTunes significantly by allowing users to download podcasts without syncing with a desktop client.

If Apple is serious about making the iPhone into an enterprise smartphone contender, excellent hardware and slick bundled applications won’t be enough to get the job done.

Apple must also submit to loosening its grip on the iPhone enough to let the platform’s developer community take the device in new directions–even if these directions threaten to weaken the client software beachhead that iTunes helps establish on users’ PCs.