Code Signing on the iPhone and on Mac OS X

Mike Ash of Rogue Amoeba has written a fantastic article about code signing, and about how Apple is using it in Mac OS X and on the iPhone.

if Apple doesn’t sign your iPhone app, it does not run. Even for local development, you need to get the code signed. The iPhone SDK is free, but by itself it won’t let you load apps onto an iPhone. When you pay Apple the $99 to enroll in the program, they send you a certificate which can be used to sign your applications. However, they will only work on iPhones which have been provisioned with this certificate.

Actually, if you haven’t already, stop right here and go read the article. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Done? Good.

Personally, I don’t mind Apple signing applications they sell on the iPhone app store. What I do mind is that Apple does not give me a way to write code, run it unsigned or self-signed (with a non-Apple certificate) on my own iPhone, and give it (again, unsigned or self-signed) to my friends who have iPhones. In other words, I want to be able to sign code with a non-Apple certificate, and I want a way to tell the iPhone to accept all code signed with a given certificate, even if that certificate has nothing to do with Apple. There are several reasons for this.

First of all, I recognize that Apple is under no obligation to make it easy for me to run applications on the iPhone. Still, I think it’s wrong for a company to serve as a gatekeeper, imposing its own morals (if a company can even be said to have morals) on the users of its devices. A technology company should enable people, not disable them. Telling its users what applications they are allowed to run is ultimately hurting them, and hurting progress. While I can understand that media companies have an incentive to hurt progress, tech companies should avoid going down the same road; in the end, it will only hurt themselves.1

Second, it hurts the iPhone. Apple’s guidelines effectively disallow many perfectly legal applications. In his article, Mike mentions porn. Porn is an important market force. It’s no coincidence that pornographic web sites make up a huge part of all web sites, and pornography makes up a large amount of all internet traffic. I understand that Apple doesn’t want to sell pornographic material on its store, but by not allowing Apple-unsigned code to run on iPhones, they’re not only keeping porn out of their store, they’re keeping porn out of the iPhone entirely2. And this is not the only genre of applications affected; Apple’s guidelines forbid applications which run in the background, which affects things like social networking software, VOIP clients or chat applications. By keeping these apps out of the store, Apple keeps them out of the iPhone; many groundbreaking applications which could have made the iPhone a rule changer are effectively forbidden because the iPhone only runs code signed by Apple.

Third, it’s bad for application quality. Typically, developers run beta tests to find bugs in their applications. How can a developer run a beta test if running code on a beta tester’s iPhone requires that the code is signed by Apple?

Finally, how do I send review copies to magazines, or free copies of my app to friends?

Requiring code to be signed by Apple is a dangerous path to follow. Unfortunately, Apple already seems to have plans to require signed code on Mac OS X. That, by itself, is quite inconvenient, but not necessarily a bad thing; it gives users the security of knowing where code comes from. However, requiring code to be signed by Apple even on Mac OS X would be a tremendously bad move, and would probably ultimately hurt Apple, its developers, and its users.

Update: Rogue Amoeba has now started filing bugs against these restrictions. Good idea.

  1. Ironically, the comparison to media companies is more than just skin-deep. Forcing applications to be signed by Apple is similar to forcing DRM on media; it won’t stop the «bad guys,» but it will annoy and bother regular users. It’s interesting that Apple recognizes this with regards to selling music, but not with regards to selling applications. back

  2. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true; you can, of course, use any of the «non-pornographic» applications like Safari or the iPod application to access porn, if you so desire. back

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