Here comes the iPhone backlash

Apple‘s legendary obsession with controlling information and availability of products has reached the tipping point.  A growing number of iPhone developers are grumbling about the arbitrary nature of the decision-making process which governs which applications get included in the iTunes storefront.   A spate of recent stories highlights what is clearly a haphazard and chaotic process. Worse, for those who are paranoid about Apple’s ability to control how consumers make use of the iPhone is the emergence of a blacklist built into the phone.  No one knows what the criteria for making the blacklist might be… and Apple isn’t telling anyone.

Simultaneously, a growing number of consumers are voicing their concerns with the iPhone, too.

Coming on the heels of the widely-publicized glitch in the launch of the iPhone 3G and the much-publicized failure of the MobileMe service, these reactions underscore just how difficult it is to execute a new strategy in the wireless business.   It turns out the mobile carriers are not so bad, after all.

For years, Silicon Valley has been griping about the mobile telecommunication industry’s lack of imagination and dull pace of innovation.   Now the finest innovator in the Valley has been humbled by a glitch-prone and buggy product debut, accompanied by sub-par customer service and disgruntled developers.   Sounds like business as usual in mobile telecoms!

Eighteen months ago at the Game Developer Conference, I warned mobile developers to be careful what they wish for, because Apple’s entry into mobile content was not necessarily good news.  I said it could be a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  Compared to the mobile network operators, Apple might just prove to be more arbitrary, controlling and difficult to deal with.  Mobile carriers, for all their many flaws, actually treat content providers with a bit of respect.  For Apple, content is just a way to push hardware sales.  Period.

Does this mean that developers will abandon the iPhone en masse?   Hardly likely.   But you can be sure that as soon as a comparable platform arrives that treats developers with a bit more respect, an exodus will begin, or at least developers will hedge their bets by developing for both.   Any veteran from the console game wars of the past 15 years can attest to the the fact that availability of applications stemming from developer support and clear policies is the path to success.

Who might dislodge Apple?   First up:  the incumbent Nokia, who dominate the global smartphone market with 40+% market share.  Nokia’s recent move to open-source Symbian will ensure a wider number of devices will sport that stable OS.  There are already hundreds of thousands of Symbian applications on the market.   Microsoft‘s new version of Windows Mobile will be more consumer-oriented.  Google Android and LiMo remain somewhat fuzzy as promising possibilities.   And the wildcard is RIM, with tens of millions of BlackBerry devices already in the market (but without a really robust consumer application program).

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