Saturday, September 20, 2008

Apple as Censor: The iPhone AppStore

To load an application into your iPhone requires you to obtain the software from the Apple iPhone AppStore. There is only one AppStore: Apple's.

Should Apple be allowed to decide on arbitrary grounds which applications will be available and which will not, given that there is one and only one AppStore? I think not.

Developers can create applications for the iPhone using an SDK (Software Development Kit) supplied by Apple. To distribute an application, the developer pays Apple $100 to have the application made available on the AppStore. If the developer is selling their application, as opposed to giving it away for free, then Apple gets a cut of the price. The SDK of course comes with lots of legalese attached on how a developer may or may not use it. Apple further appears to believe, and has acted on the belief, that they can refuse to allow an application into the AppStore for arbitrary reasons, even if the developer has not violated any conditions attached to the use of the SDK. There are two recent examples of Apple refusing to allow an application to be distributed via the AppStore that show this.

First is the case of Podcaster, developed by Alex Sokirynsky. One can listen to podcasts on the iPhone. The only way, thus far, has been to set up your podcast subscription(s) in iTunes, have iTunes download the podcasts, and then synchronize your iPhone with iTunes at which point iTunes copies the downloaded podcasts to the iPhone. Sokirynsky's application Podcaster bypasses the need for connecting your iPhone to a PC/Mac and synchronizing with iTunes. It lets you directly stream or download podcasts to your iPhone. When Sokirynsky submitted Podcaster to Apple for inclusion in the iPhone AppStore Apple refused, stating as their justification that "Since Podcaster assists in the distribution of podcasts, it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes." First, the claim is completely false: Podcaster does not "duplicate" the functionality of iTunes with respect to podcasts, it brings the significant and useful functionality of being able to access podcasts directly over-the-air (OTA) without any interaction between the iPhone and a computer or iTunes. Second, even if the claim had any merit to it, that would still not constitute a reason for Apple to refuse to allow iPhone users to buy and use Podcaster rather than iTunes.

The Podcaster saga has been on many blogs. You can read about it on the developer's blog. It was also covered in the New York Times under Saul Hansell's BITS blog on Sep. 16, 2008 under the title Apple’s Capricious Rules for iPhone Apps.

The second case has to do with an application called Pull My Finger. The application makes farting noises. The developer has a video showing the application in action. Apple refused to allow the application in the AppStore stating that the application had "limited utility to the broad iPhone and iPod touch user community". One might be tempted to dismiss this instance out of hand because the application is in poor taste, juvenile, etc. etc. It may even be, as Apple claims, of "limited utility". The AppStore carries an application that can turn your iPhone into a flashlight: surely of "limited utility" as well I would argue. Nor can Apple know a priori whether a particular application is of "limited utility": they wish to substitute their judgment unbacked by facts for the wisdom of the marketplace. Apple is taking on the role of censor.

Apple could have chosen to make the iPhone a closed platform. If they had said that the only applications you can get for the iPhone are those authored and made available by Apple, no developer or consumer could force them to open up the platform. Or they could have made the platform very selectively open with enormous barriers to entry as the video-game console makers do; one can't get an SDK for Nintendo consoles or Sony PSPs just by providing one's email, name, and address.

Alternately, Apple could have chosen to make the iPhone an 'open' platform in the same sense that Mac OS X or Windows are open. SDKs are available for these platforms and anyone may acquire/buy these from Microsoft or Apple respectively. Applications developed using these SDKs can be distributed in any way that the developer chooses and consumers have the right to buy any application for these platforms from any developer they choose. Neither Microsoft nor Apple get to say to any developer that you can't distribute this application because it duplicates some functionality of our own included programs, or that your program is of limited utility to the users of our platform. Imagine that Apple said "You can't load Microsoft Office on your PowerBook because it duplicates functionality provided by iWork"! Or Microsoft said "You can't install iTunes on Windows because it duplicates functionality provided by Windows Media Player".

By making the SDK available to all comers while attempting to control the distribution of applications built using the SDK within the legal constraints of the SDK, Apple has put itself into an untenable position. A developer who acquires the iPhone SDK has the eminently reasonable expectation that if they and their application abide by the conditions imposed by Apple on the use of the SDK then the application will be carried in the one and only iPhone AppStore which is the sole mechanism for distributing iPhone applications.

I think Apple is comparable to a "common carrier" in regards of the AppStore. Apple ought not to be able to discriminate on arbitrary grounds on the content that can be carried in the AppStore. Furthermore, Apple does indeed have a monopoly on AppStore-s: there is only the one, Apple's. If Apple thinks certain applications are not AppStore worthy, they can simply allow (license) other AppStores. In the U.S., AT&T is the sole carrier for iPhones. And AT&T is a common carrier, regulated by the federal government as well as state regulators such the as California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). One could argue that it is AT&T that is forcing all its iPhone customers to buy iPhone applications from a single source with capricious rules, preventing me from using Podcaster and Pull My Finger.
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