App Store clampdown: there can be only one

Matthew JC. Powell
15 September, 2008
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Apple has officially decided to be a monopolist, and to abuse its monopoly power to the detriment of its partners, competitors and, ultimately, its customers. I feared this would happen, and had heard intimations that it might, but I held out hope that it would not be true — that good old Apple would not be like big bad Microsoft, that Obi-Steve would not follow the dark path of Darth Bill. I was wrong. And now that Apple has chosen this path, forever will it dominate its destiny.

When we had Matt Drayton from WA developer Nolobe on the AMW Weekend Edition podcast, he talked about the pitfalls of iPhone app development, and said that developers would be unwise to develop anything that competes with an Apple product, lest it be blocked from distribution. This struck me as an unhealthy sign: if developers don’t feel they can compete with Apple products because Apple is the gatekeeper of the App Store, then we as customers don’t get to benefit from the competition that might ensue.

Obviously no-one would bother developing an app that did the same as an application that Apple has already built into the iPhone, because who would bother to pay for — or even download — such a thing? Logically, developers would be committed to creating something better than what Apple had provided, and this just might spur Apple to improve its own products.

It’s not as if the applications Apple provides are perfect jewels of functionality and design. The Safari browser is great but suffers some performance quirks with certain sites, Remote is terrific but won’t let you browse the iTunes Store on your Apple TV (or let you play rented movies) and the Mail client is, well, let’s not talk about the Mail client. It’s embarrassing.

So, could someone write a better Mail client for iPhone, or a better browser? Or did Drayton have it right — would Apple block such apps? Apple has given itself great power by making its own App Store the only legal way to get applications onto the iPhone, and such power must be used wisely.

I asked Fiona Martin, Apple Australia’s PR spokesperson, and she said that that Drayton had the wrong end of the stick — Apple would only block apps that would be “harmful to the customer”. So porn basically, or malware. She “couldn’t see why” Apple would block an application just because it competed with an Apple product.

It turns out Drayton was right, and Martin was wrong.

The developer of an app called Podcaster reported on his blog last week that his app had been rejected from the App Store because, in Apple’s words, “it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes”. So there you have it — we’re already doing that, so you can’t and we won’t let your app onto the market so the customers can decide which one they like better.

And the interesting thing is, it doesn’t. According to the developer (obviously I have not had the opportunity to try the app for myself), Podcaster not only allows you to download and save podcasts for later listening — just as iTunes does — but it also allows you to download podcasts directly to the iPhone over WiFi or 3G — which iTunes doesn’t.

Reaction has been angry, but at the same time philosophical, with developers calling for clearer guidelines from Apple on what will and will not be rejected, and perhaps even a pre-approval process, whereby you could submit a synopsis of your app to Apple for approval or rejection before you’ve spent the time and effort developing it. Even the developer of Podcaster writes in the comments section of the blog that he’d understand if Apple was planning to incorporate that functionality in some future version of the iPhone software.

I say that’s philosophical because it essentially accepts the basic premise that Apple should be allowed to reject applications that compete with its own products.

I don’t accept that. Not for one minute.

What’s a monopoly? Microsoft got into a world of trouble because it embedded Internet Explorer into Windows and made it difficult to remove. it didn’t actually block anyone from installing alternative browsers, it just made it difficult for others such as Netscape (remember Netscape?) to compete since IE was there and free and difficult to move. Nonetheless Microsoft ended up in court being grilled by the US Government for its anti-competitive practices.

What Apple is doing is immeasurably worse that what Microsoft did. Microsoft used all manner of nasty methods to push its competitors out of business, but it never simply stopped them at the door and said “you will not install that on Windows”. It never had the capacity to do so.

With the iPhone, Apple has given itself exactly that capacity.

Imagine if Apple somehow managed to block any future development of Firefox, or Camino for the Mac — there would be outrage! Imagine if Apple stopped anyone from developing a music-playing app for the Mac — revolt in the streets!

Apple can’t do that because the path for getting applications onto the Mac is open and free, and any attempt to pervert it gets you in trouble. The path for getting apps onto the iPhone is only via Apple, and Apple should have treated that responsibility with more respect.

In the wake of the Podcaster rejection, I can imagine developers around the world who had been tinkering with better e-mail clients for iPhone, or better browsers, stopping work immediately to work on things that have a better chance of seeing the light of day. Like Sudoku apps — apparently we can have as many of those as we want.

Even if Apple now turns around and says it will allow Podcaster, it will be asking those developers to make an enormous leap of faith that it won’t do this again. Developing a complex iPhone app isn’t something you do over the weekend — there’s serious investment involved.

So there’s a whole bunch of potential applications that will not see the light of day. Apple can add features like Search to its Mail client at its own pace, with no competitive pressure. It can fix bugs in Safari whenever it feels like it, since no-one will be able to switch to another browser on their iPhones. Whatever is the best Apple can do, that’s the best we’ll be able to have.

I hope that’s what you wanted, Steve.

Come back to the light. Is the situation irredeemable? Has Apple gone down a path from which there is no return? Of course not. There’s always a way back.

In this case, the way back does not involve following the developers’ suggestion of pre-approving apps based on proposals or outlines. Apple would be fielding so many requests from people with neither the means nor the talent to actually deliver the programs they describe — “Dear Apple, I want to make the most totally awesome game like ever. OK?” — that it would need to add an entire new division just to answer the mail.

Nor, as AMW online editor David Braue pointed out to me, does Apple want developers to start sending in their half-finished, pre-alpha code for approval just to be on the safe side — and I’m sure there’s quite a few developers contemplating exactly that step right now.

No, the way back for Apple is simpler than that: let go.

Hand over the arbitration of what gets sold on the App Store to some other body, preferably independent of Apple, which will treat Apple as just another iPhone developer, albeit an important one. Someone that will not give preference to Apple’s products over competing programs that do the same thing, but would still have as its ultimate priority a cohesive, interoperable, stable iPhone platform.

That would mean Apple had to compete on a (slightly more) level playing field, and its apps would have to prove themselves in the market like everyone else’s. More importantly, it would restore the developers’ faith that their hard work won’t be kiboshed at the last step because Apple doesn’t want competitors.

Apple could keep control of distribution via the App Store, and ensure that everything does go through a quality control process before hitting the iPhone. The platform benefits from that, and so do customers. But the decision of what does and what doesn’t hit the Store needs to be taken out of Apple’s hands.

That may seem frightening to a company that has become accustomed to controlling everything to do with its platform(s). But trust me: freedom is not a bad thing. Nor is competition. And for the iPhone to thrive, it’s the only way forward.

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