Lex Friedman blogs here.

Lex is the EVP of Sales and Development for Midroll, the world's best podcast advertising network.

He was previously Macworld's senior writer, and continues to contribute to the publication. He is the cohost of the Not Playing podcast, a cohost of the Turning This Car Around podcast, a cohost of the The Rebound podcast, and the sole host of the Your Daily Lex podcast.

Lex's first book, The Snuggie Sutra, is exactly what it sounds like. His most recent book is a Dr. Seuss parody for adults; it's called The Kid in the Crib.

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There's a pretty good case for letting certain apps repurpose the iPhone's volume button

Apple doesn’t like when developers sneak stuff into the App Store. I get Apple’s perspective on flashlight apps that secretly enable tethering and the like. And I understand Apple’s strict opposition to App Store apps accessing private APIs (that is, accessing features of the iPhone that Apple’s not willing to share with third-party developers, whether for reasons of security, lack-of-stability, or other, more nebulous roots). But I neither agree with nor understand Apple’s recent decision on the saga of Camera+.

In brief: Camera+ is an app that aims to help you take better pictures with the iPhone’s camera. As with Apple’s built-in Camera app, you tap a button on the screen to take a picture. Fans of the app asked the developers to offer a clever, hackish, sneaky way to take pictures without tapping the screen: Repurpose the volume buttons—which are obviously of little use in a camera app—so that they act as pseudo-shutter buttons. The theory is that tapping those hardware buttons is far less likely to bump the iPhone at the moment you snap the picture.

Fair enough. Whether you think the feature is a good idea or not, it’s a fine request, and the developers decided to implement it. Apple didn’t accept the upgraded version into the App Store, suggesting that the volume button hack would cause “user confusion.”

The developers resubmitted the app with the feature removed—sort of. In fact, by visiting a secret URL in Mobile Safari, which would in turn launch Camera+, you could unlock a hidden preference to access the volume button-as-trigger feature. Once the developers leaked word of the Safari hack, Apple pulled the app.

I get that Apple’s miffed about the chicanery, but pulling the app makes no sense to me. Well, let me rephrase. I respect that Apple pulled the app because the developer’s snuck in a feature that Apple had already rejected, but I strongly disagree with Apple’s initial decision to reject the app because of the volume button option. I think Apple should amend its rules, even if for a very narrow use case (e.g., when taking pictures in apps without sound).

I have no idea how many people are asking for the feature. I know that I tried it (via the Safari hack), and I liked it. So at least some people want this feature, and the developers implemented it. They eventually implemented it in such a way that only those who really, truly, even desperately wanted access to it could enable it. You couldn’t turn the feature on accidentally, and in fact could probably only turn it on if you knew exactly what to expect when you did so.

That’s what makes Apple’s decision so head-scratching. If folks want a feature, and go out of their way to get it, is Apple really still worried about “user confusion” here? The volume buttons retain their standard functionality outside of the app. There’s always a mute switch if you need instant volume control. And, at least in my experience, you can take better photographs with the volume button trick enabled. It seems to me that Apple is more concerned with owning the experience and maintaining the “purity” of the volume buttons, goofy as that sounds. It’s not confusion, it’s wanting to maintain that through-line. I get that, I understand it, and it’s important to Apple products. I just think they need to loosen up on this specific issue.

There’s the great joke about why Steve Jobs always wears turtlenecks. (It’s because he hates buttons.) I appreciate the iPhone’s almost-buttonless design. But Camera+ offered a clever way for interested photographers to make the best use they could of the iPhone’s hardware setup. Apple’s blocking it—particularly on the grounds of confusion, but even for other reasons—seems stubborn and persnickety. 

Apps that hack-in tethering cost Apple and/or AT&T money. App Store apps that access private APIs (like, cough, iBooks) certainly deserve extra scrutiny, although Apple lets other developers (like Google) get away with it some times.

Arbitrarily blocking an app for accessing a feature that users want—particularly when they must go out of their ways to unlock said feature—when it doesn’t cost Apple any money just seems wrong. 

It’s Apple’s platform, and it’s Apple’s store. If you want to play, I get that you must abide by Apple’s rules. So again, I do get why Apple pulled the app after the developers’ trickery. But the core issue isn’t that Apple pulled an app for sneaking in a feature; it’s that the developers snuck the feature in because Apple rejected it when the feature was exposed. Apple may well feel that the iPhone doesn’t need a shutter button. 

Let me rephrase: Apple clearly thinks that the iPhone doesn’t need a shutter button—otherwise, it would have one. But Apple also didn’t think that the iPhone needed third-party apps (remember when Steve Jobs suggested you could just rely on building fancy web pages?). I respect that Apple can have and enforce an opinion.

I’m just suggesting that this one needs to change.

Posted on August 12th, 2010