Can Apple “kill switch” zap an app off your iPhone?

Apple wields ultimate control over applications running on your iPhone. If it doesn’t like an app it flips a “kill switch” that zaps an unpalatable iTunes App off your iPhone in a heart beat.

At least that’s the buzz today in the blogosphere about a line of code found inside Apple’s iPhone 2.0 software by independent iPhone developer Jonathan Zdziarski.

Issues surrounding Apple’s supposed Orwellian-control over your iPhone have been popping up as iTunes applications have surfaced, disappeared, and resurfaced in recent weeks.

The iPhone “Kill Switch” is a separate matter. It is theorized to be a mechanism that can be updated remotely (no syncing required) by Apple and can disable any application running on an iPhone at any time.

As of today, iPhone tethering NetShare, movie listing generator BoxOffice, and the idiotic $1000 “I Am Rich” app-which did absolutely nothing-have vanished from the iTunes App Store without notice.

NetShare has been one of those on-again, off-again applications, which was yanked twice from the App Store twice.

The application lets iPhone owners share the phone’s EDGE or 3G cellular Internet connection with a notebook computer – each time it was taken down with no explanation from Apple.

NetShare is an application whose use Apple was not wholly in favor of, but that made its repeated appearances all the more perplexing.

But around the same time, a second application disappeared as well: movie lookup program Box Office.

Unlike NetShare, there would seem to be no inherent reason behind the program’s disappearance, as there are at least two other similar programs on the store already, both of which are still in place as of this writing.

Furthermore, developer Cyrus Najmabadi has said publicly that he has no idea what reason Apple could have for pulling his program from the store:

Apple pulled the app early last week without giving my any notification that they were doing it, or what their justification was for removing it.

I (Dan) am in regular contact with all my data providers, and none of them have had an issue with my app. Indeed, the response was the exact opposite.

They like my app and have even asked if I would do custom application work for them in the future. Furthermore, all the data I use is licensed by the owners as ‘free for non commercial use’. i.e. precisely what BoxOffice is.

A mystery, to be sure, and one that we hope will soon be resolved. But for now, it seems yet another case of Apple’s penchant for secrecy damaging their relationship with the developer community.

But to be clear, neither the NetShare nor BoxOffice applications have been murdered by a mysterious Apple “kill switch.”

The so-called “kill switch” remains more mystery than anything else. Zdziarski confesses on research notes posted to his site he knows little about what the code he found does: “We do not know whether this mechanism is active, or what exactly it does.”

Nevertheless iPhone developers are beginning to say “hey, wait a minute” as they ponder developing software under the influence of Apple’s apparent fickle whims.

Many are now asking questions about this “kill switch” wondering could their hard work vanish from iPhones at the flip of a switch?

In the U.S., the NetShare app apparently violated AT&T’s Terms of Service agreement – so it’s removal is understandable.

But BoxOffice, which harmlessly provided information on movie theaters, died for no divulged reason. (BoxOffice still exists and functions on my iPhone; is it only a matter of time before it disappears?) Yesterday the “I Am Rich” application was removed.

These disappearances come amidst thorny relations between Apple and app developers surrounding Apple’s non disclosure aggreement.

Developers are legally barred from exchanging or discussing programming tips with one another. Consequently, the applications suffer, they argue. Various forums have sprouted on the Internet, including the Twitter-fueled “F&%king NDA.”

Still the “kill switch” theories grow with no word from Apple about what it really is there for. Some suggest its there as a way of killing truly malicious software programs (much like anti-virus software) should they slither onto your iPhone.

Others, suggest the “kill switch” exists to give company IT staff a way of locking the iPhone down so they will be in compliance with the company’s mobile handset policies.

Zdziarski admits he hasn’t a clue what it is there for saying: “For all we know, it could trigger world war 3, or it could cause some computer somewhere to spit out recipes for buttermilk pancakes.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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