Can apps be open and trusted?

Summary: Technical experts may criticise Apple’s strict approach to the app store and what apps are allowed on it. But never underestimate the human need to feel in control of, and trust, personal devices such as mobile phones. Walled gardens have their benefits.

One of the arguments for open source versus proprietary closed source software platforms has been that ‘many eyes’ developing and testing the code will result in a more secure and stable platform with fewer risks or bugs. Also, that there will be less opportunity for ‘vendor lock-in’, meaning better choice and control for customers.

Any discussion about open vs closed systems will often include polarized views. In practice, each has its benefits.

I prefer to drive privately-manufactured cars, trusting that the vendor will have completed sufficient testing to guarantee the safety of the car within certain driving parameters. I expect my car to cope with a certain amount of road surface water, a necessary requirement living in the UK, but I know it is not designed to be a boat. The fuel I put in the car is also likely to be privately manufactured, but delivered in a standard format. I prefer open source/public roads in the UK, expecting them to be mostly of a suitable width and quality to drive on. Private roads can be an entirely different experience – some better, some worse. And the better ones usually come with additional or hidden fees.

The same can be said about software. I don’t mind using proprietary software (the vehicle) but I prefer the data and communications (the fuel and the road) to be in open or standard formats. The reason for this ramble is a recent series of articles about mobile phones and criticism directed towards the closed nature of different vendors’ app stores.

One news article – Microsoft balks at Apple’s 30% fee – describes how updates to Microsoft’s Skydrive app for iOS have been rejected by Apple for not complying with the app store guidelines, causing problems for the app and any other apps that integrate with it (Skydrive is a cloud-based file storage system). The article focused on the subcription model as being the cause of the issue. Whilst money may have had something to do with it, I don’t think it is the only reason. Apple has a very strict criteria for how apps are installed and updated. From the content of the article, it seems the issue is with apps having features that link to external web sites. The risk being that such links could lead to updates taking place outside of the app store making it possible to bypass all review processes and restrictions.

Another article – Google’s Android malware scanner detects only 15% of malicious code in test – describes the concern with methods that allow apps to be updated outside the relevant app store. How easy is it for someone to distribute an app containing malicious code? Very easily it would seem. App stores aren’t completely immune, but how easy or difficult it is to release naughty apps is much more dependent on the app store review process.

It is possible that the Microsoft-Apple app store squabble is just about who gets what cut of what fees. And technical experts may criticise Apple’s closed approach to installing apps on the iPhone. But we should never underestimate the importance of feelings such as trust and control. Those feelings matter to people, and all the more so when it comes to personal mobile devices. Walled gardens have their benefits.


Flickr image courtesy of Martin Cathrae