Is Steve Jobs Going Soft?

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I couldn’t quite muster the energy to be upset, or even surprised, when Apple released a software update earlier this fall that crushed iPhones which users had modified in unauthorized ways. I mean, I feel bad for anybody whose phone got bricked, but honestly: what did they think was going to happen? Apple is very very cautious about other people getting their vile, grubby code all over its perfect hardware. Don’t they know who they’re dealing with?

Then again, I’m starting to wonder if we really do know who we’re dealing with in Steve Jobs anymore. I was definitely surprised, pleasantly so, when Jobs posted an open letter on the Apple website announcing that Apple would in fact be opening up the iPhone to developers:

Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK [software developer’s kit] in developers’ hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

Jobs even added, in a flirty little postscript, that you’ll be able to use the SDK to create programs for the iPod Touch, too. How did he know? It’s just what I wanted!

It’s not that I’d call this a “smart” move on Apple’s part, since it’s so clearly vital to the healthy growth of the iPhone as a platform, not just a gadget, that third party developers be allowed to create software for it. You couldn’t call it a massive business insight. But it does exhibit a spirit of openness and flexibility that Apple hasn’t consistently embraced in the past. Up to this point Apple had been encouraging developers to create Web apps for the iPhone, that would run within the safe sandbox environment of the Safari browser. But now non-Apple coders will be able to get their hands on the real platform, and start filling on that blank black space on the iPhone’s desktop with all kinds of pretty little icons. Hooray.

But I also feel uneasy about it. Worried, even. This comes on the heels of Apple’s announcement that iTunes will sell its “iTunes Plus” songs — the ones with the higher sampling rate, and without the DRM — for 99 cents, the same price as regular music. In this, too, Apple has responded to the whining of its users (and assorted members of the media)…by caving, and gratifying our demands.

And don’t forget how quickly Jobs responded to the outcry over the iPhone price drop, from those who’d already purchased it at full price. And before that, when he responded to Greenpeace’s criticisms? Of course, all these may have been pre-planned course corrections, nothing more. But maybe not. Apple has always been attentive to users’ needs — user interface design is what they do — but I’m not used to Apple hopping to it in quite so sprightly a fashion. Is there an implicit admission here, that Apple was wrong and the public was right? That’s not the when-I-want-your-opinion-I’ll-give-it-to-you leadership style we’re used to from Steve Jobs. It feels different. Kinder and gentler. What’s next, a two-button mouse?

I’m just saying: I worry.