Sideloading: Not going to do what you think it will

When wishing won't make it so.

So, of late, one of the ideas proposed for Apple to deal with the negative publicity from the App Store is 'sideloading'. I'm not going to go into details on this, instead, read the best explanation of the proposal out there, from Jason Snell over at Macworld. (Disclosure: I've been an irregular contributor to Macworld for quite a long time now.) The gist of this idea is to add, buried way deep down, and accompanied by scary, scary warnings, an 'on switch' for installing 'unapproved' applications from any source.

I understand the reasoning behind this, and it's almost sound. I just don't think it will work the way Jason and others think for a number of reasons.

First, a major point of this isn't to 'open up' the platform, it's to remove a PR attack vector. The idea is, if you have this ability, then you can't flog Apple over the 'open' issue on the platform. Well, making a major OS change just to deal with PR is a bad idea. Very bad. It's not even going to solve the problem, because all the Droid camp will do is say "The App Store is still closed, and Apple makes you go through all those steps and scares you with FUD to keep you from using Apps they don't like. We don't do that. We think you're smart enough to make good choices." So much for the PR fix. If Apple let anything into the App Store today, then the response would be, "Don't you want to buy your phone from a company that doesn't need to be forced to do the right thing?"

You aren't going to win a PR battle by letting your opponents' PR control how you run your products. Apple has tried that game before, it's a loser.

Secondly, I love Jason to death, but his idea that scary warnings do any good made me laugh out loud. I've been doing IT and user support for 20 years now. I have given people scary warnings. In fact, during the height of the Michelangelo Virus problem, we told people point blank: DO NOT BOOT YOUR COMPUTER ON MARCH 6TH UNTIL IT HAS RUN A SCAN ON YOUR SYSTEM AND TOLD YOU IT IS OKAY. IF YOU IGNORE THIS WARNING, YOUR HARD DRIVE WILL BE CORRUPTED, AND YOU WILL LOSE ALL YOUR DATA. Yes, we used all caps. That was what we told people, that was how we told them. We still had people booting their computers and losing data. Reasons given?

  • We thought you were joking
  • IT always exaggerates
  • I never read IT memos
  • I'm the <Very Important Title>, I assumed I'd be safe

The idea that very scary warnings are going to work compared to the onslaught of publicity talking about how this is 'a brave new shiny day for iPhone/iPad users' is unrealistic at best. People ignore scary warnings. If they didn't, phishing would not work nearly as well as it does.

Third, Jason talks about how it will help the perception that the iPad can't open PDF files, or what have you. Again, some laughter at this, because for years I've heard this about the *Mac*. Opening up the iPhone to j. random application is not going to make that particular problem go away. The Mac OS is open, and people still think that it can't open files from non-Apple products. The idea that opening the iPhone will keep competitors from calling it a closed platform is ridiculous, and flies in the face of history and facts. It's a very optimistic view, but not one that survives even casual analysis.

Another optiong for sideloading, one not discussed by Jason's article, but one I've seen brought up by a number of people is that Apple could limit access to certain features on the OS in exchange for not needing approval. One example was you wouldn't be able to access raw sockets, just say, make HTTP connections.

This one's even worse. First, again, it will not shut up the Droid PR. "Sure, you can get Apps from other sources now, but Apple cripples them so they can't compete with the Apps they like. How Draconian can you be? We don't do that at all." So, no win for the PR side of things. (Seriously, I'm not in PR, I'm just argumentative, but shooting down the PR aspect of this is really quite trivial.)

Secondly, this brings up a strange version of "Word 5.1+". Some background: After the debacle that was Word 6 on the Mac, an odd movement started, that continues to this day. "Word's too bloated, it's too big, it's got too many features. All you really need is Word 5.1+<small set of features the person saying this cares about> and Word would be perfect." I get that Word 5.1 was much beloved by many, but this argument is too precious for words. I talked to one of the Microsoft Mac BU folks about this one a few years ago, someone on the Word team and they said: "Oh yeah. Word 5.1+. The problem is, no one ever has the same feature set. So if you put them alll together, you know what you get? Word 2008. It's always some other guy's features that suck." If you start pressing people suggesting "some" limitations, especially devs, they either never come up with a list that would cause them any problems, or, you find they're completely unwilling to really accept any limitations at all, and just want to avoid the App Store. This isn't surprising, it's always better to gore that other guy's ox instead of yours, but it does mean that you'll never find a set of 'some restrictions' that won't cause even more screaming than you have now.

This also overlooks the fact that you have this version of sideloading now. Web Apps. There's no approval, and there are "some" restrictions on the featureset of Web Apps compared to 'native' applications. As well, there's no approval needed. Do as thou wilt, so mete it be. But, when you bring that one up, well, it's okay...for everyone else. Big-time NIMBY on this one.

Look, I understand the attractive nature of this idea, but seriously: it's not going to solve a single problem people think it will, and will create even more problems. It won't be "better" it will just be "different". Different for difference's sake is never a good idea.

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