5: The Battle for Control
The author opens with the conflict between a German tabloid and the iPhone, when the tabloid wanted to include images containing nudity in its iPhone application (this is not uncommon in European tabloids) and iPhone refused to allow it into the App store, as it was a violation of the terms. This sparked some contraoversy over censorship: "Today it's naked breasts, tomorrow it could be editorial content."
While Apple's terms of srvice largely regulate content to being technically sound, free of viruses, respectful of privacy, the prohibiltion against "offensive" content has led to the allegations that Apple is acting as a censor (deciding what the users of the device may view on their iPhone) or in some cases of being vindictive (when an application from Vanity Fair was rejected, they claimed it was because of their unflattering treatment of Steve Jobs). Apple is not required to state a reason for rejecting an application, and can even in some instances use bureaurcratic process to block an application by simply not responding to a request for it to be reviewed and approved.
The degree to which these allegations are valid is speculative. While some are merely disgruntled submitters who find it more convenient or apepaling to blame Apple than to admit and correct legitmate flaws in their applications, others seem to be clear instances in which Apple wishes to deny acces to the platform to certain companies and individuals.
It's noted that this concern is in regard to applications only - there is no attempt to block pron, cartoons, or Apple-bashing articles viewed in the Web browser, nor is tthere much other evidence that there is an issue: Apple processes around 15,000 app submissions weekly and declines only 5% of them, many for reasons that are demonstrably valid. Hwoever, this doesn't stop allegations from being made and concerns from being raised.
The Future of Media
Technology has long been a threat to traditional journalism. While the newspapers, magazines, and television stations were not shut down in short order, as some predicted, the Internet has slowly eroded their audiences: newspapers seem on the brink of extinction, with magazines soon to follow, and even the television audience has been distracted by newer channels.
While few traditional media channels have had much success selling subscription content on the Internet, the potential for delivering content on subscriber apps has rekindled some hope. The App Store provides a method for collecting payment from each user, and the nature of apps makes it difficult for a single user to share content with non-subscribers (a particular problem of the Web), and advertisers are currently willing to pay more for in-app advertising than they do on the Web. This solves several of the major problems with transitioning to the Web and makes the platform seem economically viable.
The author draws a parallel between Apple's policies regarding the content of apps and Wal-Mart's policies regarding the books, magazines, videos, and recorded music it chooses to stock in its stores. The retail chain has been pursued with lawsuits from publishing houses, record labels, and individual artists who feel its refusal to stock their products was akin to censorship, but time and again the course have upheld the retailer's right to choose which merchandise it stocks. The battle has largely ended, with many companies choosing instead to create a "sanitized" version that would be stocked in Wal-Mart stores. (EN: The same was true of Blockbuster video rental stores, though the point may be moot in light of the collapse of the company, it was at one time an issue that ended up being resolved in the same way: the courts dismissed suits, and studios edited a Blockbuster version of their films).
Other issues are Apple's choice of technologies (many complain about the lack of support for Flash) and foreign-language content (EN: which was repealed in 2010), and the fact that the policies, procedures, and even the agreement between developer and Apple are subject to change at a whim.
Another sore-spot is Apple's recent demand for 30% of subscription fees for applications that push data updates regularly to users. From Apple's perspective, this is to cover the costs to them of applications that constantly push large amounts of data to users, where their typical model is for software that is downloaded only once and infrequently updated. Publishers, naturally, object to the additional expense as unfair.
The terms of the agreement between Apple and developers is extremely one-sided, and developers must choose to accept Apple's terms or simply not be able to develop for the platform. It doesn't help that the agreement has some patently ridiculous stipulations:
- Developers are forbidden from speaking about their agreement with Apple
- Developers must distribute exclusively through Apple and cannot distribute through any other site or channel, including their own site
- Apple's liability to developers, even when their behavior causes expense or loss, is limited to a token amount $50
- If anyone sues Apple because of the developer's actions, the developer's liability to Apple is unlimited
- Once Apple approves an application, it can change its mind at any time and pull the app from the store.
The same terms of service are being extended to the stores that support the iPad device, as well as the new "app store" that is meant to serve as the new channel for all software distribution to Macintosh computers.
Tinker Me Not
Another common area of objection are the conditions of Apple is hostile to the prospect of developers "tinkering" with the technology. Since the earliest days of computing, it has been common for programmers to innovate by hacking - that is, attempting to use technology in ways the manufacture did not intend or foresee - as well as experimenting with one another's code. Apple's policies discourage or explicitly prohibit this practice, stifling innovation.
One example is Apple's rejection of an educational application used to teach the "scratch" programming language to children, rejected by Apple because it violated their requirement against using code that is outside the accepted APIs and built-in compilers. Naturally, critics spun this as "Apple hates children." There are similar complaints from developers who want access to the root of the device, as they have with most computer systems.
Naturally, the development community has applied itself to "hacking" into the iPhone OS and working around built-in limitations, as a method of learning how to exploit the undocumented system capabilities. This is a common method of research and development in the software industry, but Apple is staunchly opposed to the practice.
Apple sought to get the federal government to make hacking and jail breaking its devices criminal, even if the device belonged to the person who was doing the hacking, but did not get the legislative support they wanted. Lacking this support, Apple took the strongest measures possible on its own: to void the warranty and refuse to support any device that has been broken or runs unauthorized software, and to revoke the license of any developer who is caught, or even suspected, of hacking the device or sharing information that would enable others to do so.
Naturally, this has drawn criticism from the industry, but the profits of developing for the platform have made most developers fall in line.
An "Open" Alternative?
Apple's "control freak" behavior was seen as a boon to Google, whose Android phone, it claimed, would be fully open-source and developers would not face the same draconian restrictions. The direct competition of the firms cooled what had been a cordial relationship, after which Google took a more aggressive stance in developing its product not merely to be a good phone, but as "an iPhone killer," and Apple responded with open hostility toward Google. Clearly, this was not friendly competition over a device, but a serious conflict over a user interface that as seen as a critical component in the future of media in general.
Petty bickering aside, Google has done little to threaten Apple's dominance of the smart phone market. While Google set certain standards of applications available on its own Android "store," it did not prevent users from "side loading" applications from other sources. (EN: there have been instances of malicious apps for Android, and others that were simply badly written - but the extent and severity is difficult to ascertain: some spin it up, others down.)
It's also been largely taken out of Google's hands: the various carriers who offer the Android phone have often customized the hardware and software to the point where it is not really an "open" platform, and apps written for Android must be customized to a very specific carrier's hardware specifications, and is subject to the approval and conditions of the carrier. So while it is still theoretically possible for Android to become an open platform, that has not been a reality.
The Internet and the "Internot"
The world of apps is a step backward, rather than forward, to the client-server model of communication. Rather than connecting a browser to resources on a server, a mobile user who downloads an app is installing software and data on his device, and receiving periodic updates from the same source. Even in instances where the application is downloaded to access data in real time, it is generally accessed from a single source.
This is largely academic, in that users are indifferent to the technology that is sued to serve their needs, so long as it serves their needs, though it does create a dependency to a single provider for a given need: it is unlikely an iPhone user will download two different apps to get news, which gives the developer of the news-reading app (or the provider of the feed) the ability to control the information available to users.
The notion of "net neutrality" is also circumvented by the mobile networks, based on the notion that a network provider's customers were purchasing access to the Internet, and their carrier should not interfere with their use of information resources. The use of the mobile platform gives the carrier a justifiable excuse to discriminate on the bandwidth it provides, as the device and the content it accesses are both components of the service.
Even the language of an explicit guarantee authored by Verizon and Google for guaranteeing subscribers access is clouded by ambiguous terms that could well be interpreted to give the providers control over what is accessed. A promise to allow customers to "send and receive lawful content of their choice" puts the provider in a position to interpret what is "lawful," as well as the implicit right to inspect any content sent or received by their subscribers and users to ensure that it is lawful.
There are even passages within the agreement that clearly suggest implementing the separation of bandwidth, one for the Internet, a separate one for "differentiated online services" provided by the carrier. This effectively gives the carrier the permission to allocate less bandwidth to the resources provided by other companies differently than to their own - or, in effect, to make their services run faster and make others' services slower and less usable.
Thus far, the FCC has been supportive of customers by passing legislation to prevent Verizon and Google from exercising these clauses to inhibit competition. There have been explicit rulings to prevent smart phone from blocking the Skype service (which uses the Internet to place voice calls rather than requiring the user to purchase a a voice plan), and Verizon has been prohibited from "playing favorites" with online video sites.
Ultimately, it's subject to debate and conjecture whether any restriction of provision of a service or device is motivated by a desire to make the service/device itself more usable, or to make competing services less usable.
Control of Mobile
While Apple is subjected to much criticism over their control of the iPhone, they're only one faction fighting for "the soul of mobile" - the other faction is the mobile carriers, who already control the ways in which customers can use every other device, and who tend to be far more effective at restricting capabilities. While they are siding with consumers in the fight, it's likely the consumer will find them to be much less accommodating if they ultimately win.
The limited success of Google's Android platform illustrates this problem: each carrier modifies the device to its own liking, shopping it with bloatware that the customer can't remove, restricting their ability to add additional software or services, and generally locking down the device to be compatible with their service - and, except as specifically prohibited by law, to be compatible with only their service.
As much as consumers and developers complain about Apple's tight control of its platform, it does have practical benefits. Just like the Macintosh computer line, the iPhone "just works" for the user, and is better safeguarded against malicious and poorly-written software. The degree to which the device must be locked down to support Apple's interests is certainly less than the carriers would care to implement.
Ultimately, the conflict between Apple and the carriers to take control of the platform will ultimately impact customers' use of the iPhone, for better and for worse.