Apple iPhone: New Open Door Policy

iPhoneOpensHey, it worked for Facebook.

The famously closed-door Apple Inc. announced last week that the company would let outside developers create software for its iPhone and iPod Touch devices starting this February–bowing to consumer demand, and the realization that a vibrant creative community is essential these days for a technology (or a social network) to survive.

MySpace would surely attest to this idea: Since opening up its platform to widget development (i.e., mini-applications that do anything from managing your calendar of events to pitting you in the epic power struggle between ninjas and pirates), Facebook has enjoyed a massive surge in traffic–it’s now 3rd in overall page views–while MySpace has fallen on the same measure by 20%.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs, while obviosly aware of demand, had clung stubbornly to Apple’s insular culture prior to last week’s announcement. The company, after all, has a pretty decent track record of making attractive, highly functional things that people seem to want (they’ve sold more than 110 million iPods to date). In fact, it’s due in some part to its secrecy that Apple has been able to innovate so effectively without many of its designs and trade secrets hitting the Web before hitting the shelves.

But developers certainly weren’t going to wait for Jobs’ go-ahead to start the games: They began almost immediately to make programs such as Sudoku puzzles and voice mail management tools, which users found online and added to their iPhones. Others created programs to unlock the iPhone from its wireless carrier, AT&T Inc.

But Apple wasn’t having any of it, and issued a software update last month for the iPhone that knocked out many of these programs, and damaged some of the handsets which had been unhooked from the AT&T network. Antagonizing developers and regular users alike, Jobs thought better of the move, and did his sharp about-face mid-last week.

Plus he was pretty darn convincing about it. “Let me just say it: We want native third-party applications on the iPhone,” Jobs asserted in a posting to the company blog. “We are excited about creating a vibrant third-party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users.”

Like he had a choice.

As the Lab likes to put it, “Open lives, closed dies.” It’s actually pretty simple math in a complex and confusing world of emerging media: If you don’t allow your champions to discuss, celebrate, promote, criticize, and ultimately take ownership of your brand and help it grow, it’s eventually going to stagnate and become irrelevant. Which, of course, is a foreign and uncomfortable position to be in for a closely-kept and protective company like Apple.

But this is part of growing up. While still arguably the computer industry’s underdog (although that wind is shifting, too), Apple is now adjusting to being a leader in entertainment and consumer electronics. It sets the pace–and policies–these days in major new markets including digital music, media players, and mobile phones. So watch for a number of these sorts of reversals as Apple continues to get its footing while looking over its shoulder.

The next battleground: digital rights management, in a toe-to-toe-to-toe between Apple, Amazon, and the record labels. The Mac-maker actually made another move this week on this front, announcing it was slashing the price of the music it sells without copyright restrictions, from $1.29 to 99 cents–bringing its pricing in line with Amazon’s offering.

I wonder how Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, will respond? He’s a little less cagy than Jobs, and certainly has the Web traffic to put up a pretty good fight. Stay tuned, this should be fun.