Imagine a world in which you could only run programs on your computer that were specifically permitted by its manufacturer. Imagine that you couldn’t install a P2P application, not because it could potentially be used for copyright infringement, but because the maker of your PC wouldn’t let you. Imagine that you couldn’t install a VoIP program to make cheap calls, not because of any technical limitation, but because it threatened the profits of a phone company with whom the manufacturer has an agreement.

Imagine no more. That brave new world is here!

The Apple iPhone is an impressive device. Not so much because of the hardware—the multi-touch screen is important, but the radio side doesn’t even do 3G communications—but because of the software. After stagnant development in mobile phone user interfaces, with development being focused on technical features at the expense of actually being able to use them, it should shake up the market and teach phone manufacturers that they could be doing so much better.

To see an iPhone is to want one. But I’m not going to buy one. If I’m paying that much for a portable computer, I want to be able to use it as I please. But you can’t even use an iPhone without creating an iTunes account and signing up for a contract with a mobile phone operator—the kind of ‘tying’ that is illegal in many countries, incidentally.

Apple’s iPhone is, in a way, the phone of the future. Unfortunately, I can’t help feeling that it’s a kind of authoritarian, dystopian, science fiction future, in which technology is used to maintain the subservience of the huddled masses.

Last week, Steve ‘Reality Distortion Field’ Jobs announced the release of an SDK for the iPhone. In short, this allows programmers to write applications that run on the iPhone. That’s great! But it comes with some draconian restrictions, enforced by Apple as gatekeeper: you can only get programs onto the iPhone through Apple’s installation mechanism.

No porn, for example. That’s OK: maybe you don’t care about porn. Certainly, few people are going to stand up and complain. Besides, the iPhone already has a web browser. I think it’s a bit shortsighted, though, considering the influence of pornography in driving technical development throughout history.

No ‘illegal’ applications. What does that mean? I don’t know, but you can probably forget about getting MAME or another game system emulator on there.

No VoIP over EDGE. WiFi’s allowed—i.e., VoIP is permitted only when it isn’t competing with the mobile operator. That sounds like a conflict of interest to me.

No interpreters. That means no Ruby, Python, Perl, Lua or anything like that. No text adventure games, either.

Applications can’t run in the background. Correction: non-Apple applications can’t run in the background. So even if you do write that VoIP application that runs over WiFi, it’s not going to be able to receive many calls. Similarly, your Facebook utility can’t let you know that you have seventy-three invitations to play a game of mediaeval-scrabble-zombie-star-trek-am-I-hot-or-not.

If you sell an iPhone application, you have to let Apple take 30%. This is ‘to pay for running the app store’. You know, the one you have to use.

Developing ain’t free, either: you have to pay $99 to get the SDK (in fact, this charge is for the signing key; see the comments for a clarification) and be allowed to start developing an application. (On the plus side, the SDK does at least allow you to put your own programs onto your own iPhone.)

The iPhone is a useful, groundbreaking device, with an interface that is a genuine leap forward. But it’s also ruled by Apple’s iron fist: you can’t do anything with it that they haven’t specifically permitted. In direct opposition to Apple’s hip, progressive, individualistic image, the iPhone is, in fact, the embodiment of a cynical, illiberal, corporatist philosophy that treats the end user with contempt.

Fortunately, it’s still possible to jailbreak the iPhone, to escape Apple’s restricted walled garden and to use it in whatever way you wish. But it’s a game of cat and mouse, with Apple shutting down the loopholes as they are discovered.

There are even suggestions that Mac OS X on the desktop is also moving towards requiring all applications to be signed. Even if you can live with these kinds of restriction on your phone, how would you feel about your big computer being equally limited?

It’s not only governments that take away your freedom: consumer electronics manufacturers can do it too. Steve, why do you hate freedom?