Apple iPhone, 911, GPS, and Apple’s walled garden

Doc Searls recently posted from CES with a complaint about the iPhone’s lack of GPS support:

My own first question was “Where’s the GPS?” Absence of that would be a deal-killer for me.

Well, good news and bad news. Since 2005, all cell phones have had to support a location based functionality for calls to 911:

Already in the works is E911. E(nhanced) 911 is a program mandated by the U. S. FCC (Federal Communications Commission). It requires the location of any cell phone used to call 911 can be determined to within 50 to 100 meters. The law takes effect at the start of 2005. That means cell phone manufacturers need to incorporate a GPS receiver in virtually every cell phone. A side benefit of this law is now we have the combination of a cell phone and GPS which is good for two additional uses: 1) driving directions in your automobile and; 2) the ability to use a cell phone as a handheld GPS for out-of-car purposes. source

So, unless Apple has found a way to skirt this law, the iPhone will support some GPS-style functionality. Since the usual cell phone location technology isn’t quite the same as GPS, it may not be GPS itself, but at the hardware layer, it will need to support a minimal location capability.

The bad news is that despite iPhone being OS X, it will apparently be a closed system, with no third-party applications! [See Apple VPs confirm no 3rd party iPhone apps] Of course, people don’t expect to be able to run third-party apps on their iPod. And only recently have we begun to see third party applications on our cell phone. But we do expect it on our full fledged operating system.

Even Doc expects it. His more detailed post at Linux Journal gushes about the possibilities of the iPhone:

It’s also a platform for software.

But then at CES I talked with Garmin folks about the universal connected utility of bluetooth GPS receivers. The iPhone does bluetooth. Nothing to stop anybody from making the iPhone display and otherwise add value to information from a bluetooth GPS receiver.

And will Apple prevent customers from using Skype to talk over wi-fi or EDGE? Not if Apple wants to make good on Steve’s description of the iPhone as ” a breakthrough Internet communications device”.

Knock what’s closed about the iPhone all you want; it’s still a computer with a mike, a screen, a speaker and a pile of other input and output openings that invite developments of many kinds. That’s why I think iPhone is going make the cell phone market a lot bigger. It will encourage participation by developers and customers that have until now been forced to cope with far less than they’ve wanted from the cell phone industry. And that includes all the legacy cell phone players with which Apple now partners or competes.

Markets are mashups. By vendors. By manufacturers. By developers. By customers large and small. And, most importantly, but the “long tail” Apple correctly called “the rest of us” long before 1984. That is, by customers and users. We haven’t been part of this market before, except as a source of noise and cash. Now we can start participating. The doors are opening. Some were already open. Tuesday’s news just brings that fact to light.

Best of all, Apple has raised the ceiling for conversation as well as development in the broad new category of personal telephony. Long before the iPhone comes out (it’s still months away), we can start talking about countless other devices we are now more encouraged than ever to invent or improve. We can talk about applications and services that no big company would ever invent, but will open the market to all kinds of opportunities.

The opportunities are indeed amazing, but only if Apple opens up the development pathway. For now, iPhone is only a platform for software development by Apple, Inc. With the sexiest phone on the market, Apple is likely to continue to play the walled garden game to capture 100% of a smaller, sexier market. That’s been their modus operandi from the beginning and is still the reason OS X has less than 6% market share (and that despite a 30% growth spurt in 2006).

Unfortunately, the iPhone will open a new convergence of computers and cell phones, built with Apple style, Apple panache, and locked into the Apple Walled Garden. Users craving a broader, open base of third party applications will be forced to wait for Microsoft to open up the market with a less appealling, less sexy, but more open ZunePhone sometime in the future.

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