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Apple's "Killer Apps" Gives Way to "Kill Switch"

Wednesday, 13 Aug 2008 | 1:45 PM ET
Apple iPhone
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Apple iPhone

This is another Apple Inc. story working its way through the blogosphere at break-neck speed, spreading like a fungus in a damp swamp of conjecture, fear and a noticeable lack of details.

Of course I am talking about the so-called Apple "Kill Switch," or the purported ability by Apple not to just wipe away a questionable piece of software from the company's new App Store, but actually reach into your iPhone and wipe it from there as well. Remotely. Whether you've given Apple permission to do it or not. And presumably provide you with a refund from your original purchase

The idea here is that if Apple approves an app for sale on its App Store site, and then discovers down the road that the software might be malicious in some way, or carry a virus, or evolve into something that wasn't originally approved, then Apple reserves the right to erase that program from its store. And the phones that downloaded it.

I get Apple's position: the company owns the store and it should therefore have the right to determine what is available there. If developers don't like the uber-control Apple is exercising, they can develop for someone else, or develop for Apple and try to distribute someplace else. If consumers don't like Apple's direct access to their personal phone, they can buy a BlackBerry instead.

Of course nothing is really that easy. Should Apple be able to exert total control over its App Store? Absolutely. This is not a government-run operation; this isn't a free speech issue. The fact is, Apple owns the store. It gets to make the rules. It's running the game. And if developers don't like it, they can pick up their marbles and play somewhere else. It's one thing for Apple to protect consumers from viruses and malicious software, but it's another to employ tactics to try to protect consumers from themselves.

Take the "I Am Rich" app that installed a little jewel on your iPhone, does absolutely nothing, doesn't break any laws, cost $999.99, and was designed just to show others that you're rich enough to put a $1,000 piece of software on your iPhone that does absolutely nothing. Apple took it down. It should have stayed. Had the "I Am Rich" app been a Trojan horse of some kind that could've destroyed your phone, and Apple found out about it, then it absolutely should have removed it from the store.

But should Apple have the right to reach inside your phone and kill it there too? That's a little weird for me. It goes a big step beyond what a company should do to "protect" itself and the customers using its products. Send out a warning telling customers that a piece of software they bought, that now sits on their phone, has become digitally dangerous--or is in some way illegal--and they should take steps to remove it.

Having the company do it for you under the guise of a "service" to its customers just smacks of something from George Orwell. It smells funny if only because you don't know where it all ends. If you don't pay your bill, AT&T can shut off your phone. But it can't erase the data stored on it. Could AT&T strike a deal with Apple so that if you don't pay your bill, Apple can then erase your data to further punish you? Sounds far-fetched, but what are the rules? What are the guidelines?

Apple has to communicate clearly to developers what is and isn't OK for its App Store. It has to communicate clearly to consumers what the true capabilities are of this so-called "Kill Switch," how it could be used, why it would be used, under what circumstances, and just how secure it is so that I don't have to worry about some hack getting his hands on it and killing stuff out of my phone just for fun.

Now that we know the "Kill Switch" is there, Apple owes it to its customers to offer up some answers to those FAQs working their way through the net. Or maybe it could just send those answers direct to my iPhone start-screen.

What do you think? Write me and I'll post some of the responses.

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