Why single out Apple?

Sun 14 September 2008

Apple has recently gotten some heat for refusing to approve a competing iPhone app. From a business perspective, the only thing wrong is Apple admitting this instead of finding a scapegoat excuse. It's a bit sad when gatekeepers using their status to bludgeon a select few competitors is a step forward from the status quo.

We've known that the iPhone is a walled garden for some time; hell, when Apple announced the App store it was hailed as revolutionary, no longer did users have to jailbreak their phones to fight the cell phone provider cartel (just sign up for a two year agreement of epic proportions). Jailbreaks are a great way to earn notoriety and a feeling of superiority, having somehow cheated the system. I used to succumb to the seduction of cheating the system via technology; long before the advent of iPods and iPhones, a classmate of mine owned a Diamond Rio and I was quite jealous. I certainly had a CD burner back in the days when Word Autosave could turn a CD-R into a coaster through dreaded buffer underflows.

But over time I've come to realize that having to jailbreak something in the first place is the source of that envy, and it's only enviable because open access socially beneficial. Locked platforms increase the cost to entry, excluding programmers because they don't have cash to spare or an address outside of a dorm room. I wonder how the Steve Jobs that sold blue boxes feels about the Steve Jobs that locks out competition. He'd probably ask the Steve Jobs that wrote an open letter to explain to us why the big cartels won't let them play that way.

So what's the status quo on mobile phones? If you want to know what the PC world might look like post Microsoft, mobile is the place to look. It's a massively splintered market with trails of middlemen between application developers and their customers The big platforms are:

  • J2ME (Java): The broadest implemented platform, and also the most constrained. Network access is restricted to HTTP only and the "improved" 2.0 API provides only tone and wav audio. Phones in the US usually refuse to run applets not signed by the carrier, but you can at least test on your PC's JVM.

  • Symbian: a popular firmware OS among high end Nokia phones, but is introducing capabilities via digital signatures to clamp down on Bluetooth virus effects.

  • BREW: popular on Qualcomm hardware, is reportedly worse off than Symbian, where your ability to deliver software to end users at all must be blessed by a "content provider," typically a mobile carrier, and you still need a 400 dollar license to digitally sign personal builds for testing.

So the only thing that Apple has done is wrest away the stranglehold carriers have on application consumers. Traditionally the best way to reach your customers is through the carriers, on their websites, mailings and app stores. Apple has taken this away from AT&T, but certainly isn't about to surrender it to 3rd party developers. They've taken high margins away from the carriers, but left for themselves the lucrative role of gatekeeper and market maker, with nearly 30 percent margins!

The hacker spirit isn't just about the ability to use, modify, and share software, it's about equality. The equality to run, modify, and share software with the same rights as the vendor reserves for themselves. Locked platforms and gatekeepers are an invasion of that hacker spirit. I don't think it's appropriate to single out Apple's practices here or to lavish any praise on them in light of their ability to interfere and demonstrated willingness to use that ability.

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