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Why Apple should open up the iOS sandbox

Marco Tabini | April 30, 2014
In the world of smartphone punditry, the idea of sandboxing--restricting software to dealing only with the files or capabilities it absolute needs to--tends to be a polarizing concept. On the one hand, power users chafe at the way it limits their ability to use their computers and mobile devices the way they want; on the other, it's hard to argue against the success that Apple has had with the philosophy--particularly in the mobile market, in which the company has created a computing platform that is both secure and popular.

In the world of smartphone punditry, the idea of sandboxing — restricting software to dealing only with the files or capabilities it absolute needs to — tends to be a polarizing concept. On the one hand, power users chafe at the way it limits their ability to use their computers and mobile devices the way they want; on the other, it's hard to argue against the success that Apple has had with the philosophy — particularly in the mobile market, in which the company has created a computing platform that is both secure and popular.

Yet sandboxing is also starting to show its age. While the capabilities of iOS devices are rapidly approaching the territory of their desktop counterparts, the ability of iOS apps to communicate with each other is stuck in the 2007 era. It's time for a change.

Sandcastles and security

Sandboxing is most often touted as a technology whose primary job is security and control. By enforcing a very strict set of rules on which apps can be installed on a device and exactly what they can do, Apple claims — rightly so, for the most part — that it can provide its users with a safe computing environment in which they can operate without having to worry about their data and personal information being stolen.

At a deeper level, however, sandboxing has also helped the company deliver on its promise of an innovative mobile experience that can rival the performance delivered by desktop computers.

The first few generations of iPhones and iPads were, essentially, big screens strapped to big batteries. As such, they suffered from severe limitations in both performance and power that, left unchecked, would have severely hampered the kind of interaction that Apple wanted its users to enjoy: It's hard to provide consistently smooth scrolling or all-day battery life when the user could be running dozens of apps in the background, each of which is parasitically consuming CPU cycles and power.

With sandboxing in place, Apple was able to establish and enforce a set of compromises through which it could ensure that every user, no matter how experienced or daring, would always enjoy the power that the company promised.

Fools of us all

Times, however, change, and today's average mobile device is much less constrained by hardware than its ancestors. Apple's own marketing materials, which typically eschew technical talk, now say that iPhones and iPads pack "desktop class" hardware beneath their screens.

Sandboxing, unfortunately, has failed to keep up with these changes. Sure, some of the early restrictions have been lifted: Third-party software can now run in the background under some circumstances, for example, and apps can exchange files either directly, if prompted by the user, or through a system clipboard.

 

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