Apple: More Anticompetitive Than Microsoft

Just under a month ago, an iPhone developer from Australia — one who’s previously defended Apple’s approval process — had his own app suddenly dis-approved by Apple. According to his blog post about the sudden revocation of approval, “I had convinced my company to take a gamble and make some apps for Apple’s Store. Tennis Stats had been a great success and we wanted to get on the iPad train with My Frame. Things were going well, new features were being planned money, real money was being invested. Then Apple pulled the pin”.

I could say all sorts of things about schadenfreude, or how the developer — who goes by the nom de plume “Shifty Jelly” — should have seen this coming. But the guy’s already having a bad enough month, and there are broader issues to examine. Among them the thought raised by commenter Erik K. Veland:

Remember when Apple cracked down on Podcast downloaders? It was because they themselves were introducing this very feature in iTunes.

[I] would surmise [that] Apple is now bringing “widgets” to their dashboard in the near future, and that they are pre-empting any apps conflicting with the “duplicate functionality” clause. [historical links, added by Kai]

Once you’ve considered Apple’s penchant for banning apps that compete with features that are built in to the OS, you’ve got to consider how this compares against other companies’ competitive practices. I think one of the most insightful points comes in a comment by user “Adrock”, nearly at the bottom of the page:

the big difference between Xbox and iPhone/iPad marketplace is the unpredictable changes. I don’t know of any XBox game that got recalled after its release because MS changed its mind about something.

Honestly, it’s a despicable practice. Imagine Call of Duty getting yanked off the 360 a week after it’s released because it competed with Halo (an MS owned FPS). This is really no different. [spelling and punctuation corrected for clarity]

Other commenters noted that while Microsoft had often put third-party utility makers out of business, by folding that functionality into Windows itself, it never actually blocked the utilities from running on Windows. It just made them unnecessary, then let them die off as users lost interest and no longer bothered to buy them. (One thing I definitely noticed about Shifty Jelly’s blog: he’s got some smart and insightful commenters.)

So this raises the question: Why has Apple been getting such a free pass from geeks for so long? People who have been agitating for open document standards since 2003 (if not earlier) have happily accepted DRMed AACs on their iPods, and a single gatekeeper for apps on the iPhone/iPad ecosystem — a single gatekeeper that even maintains the ability to remotely auto-vanish apps after installation. That part is eerily reminiscent of the “only authorized/signed applications will run” feature of the TCPA/Palladium proposal that got geeks so very disturbed back in the early 2000s. We mobilized and managed to kill Palladium — and yet now we’re writing apps for the Apple Store, and some of us are even surprised when Apple decides to yank their certification?

For once, the US government is ahead of the tech geeks on this curve, with the Federal Trade Commission initiating a probe of Apple’s anti-competitive practices — coincidentally, less than two weeks after Shifty Jelly’s post. (Of course, given the Department of Justice’s record with the Microsoft decision, I don’t expect anything of any real importance to come of this probe. Even if it leads to a full trial and a win against Apple, the “penalties”, if any, will amount to a slap on the wrist.)

Microsoft never tried to use its dominance in the desktop OS market to keep us from accessing or storing porn on our computers. Microsoft never stopped small-scale, private developers from distributing software that would run on any and every Windows machine in existence. But Apple is on an anti-porn crusade that even denied the Gutenberg Project’s app simply because it could have been used to download a copy of the Kama Sutra, and exercises increasingly arbitrary-looking control over what apps can be distributed at all.

So, will someone please tell me: Why is Apple still considered a “good guy”?

6 Comments

  1. Capitan Holy Hippie
    Posted Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    What makes you think Apple is getting a free pass from geeks? There’s a lot of anti-apple criticism out there, and the App store approval process is one of the most hotly contested items. The Apple themed blogs are full of pointed, heated, venomous rhetoric on this issue in particular.

    You may not have heard the criticisms, but trust me – they are everywhere. You aren’t doing anyone a service by pretending otherwise, and trying to set the narrative that Apple is getting a free ride.

    And second, what sort of fallacious logic are you using to see this behavior as anti-competitive?

    Here’s a way to think of it – all the iOS devices are wholly produced by Apple. Apple, in it’s own selfish self-interest, operates a closed market for applications to run on these devices. Apple sets the rules for who can produce applications for these devices, and sets the rules for what can be produced for these devices. One big reason Apple does this is because the consumer – right or wrong – will see that they got the software from Apple, hence Apple is responsible for it. Consumers don’t have as discriminating judgement to tell that because an app crashed, sold their personal data to the Russians, and took pictures of them without their knowledge; that it’s not Apple’s fault that those things happened. Wether or not you believe it, Apple as a company cares deeply about what their customers think of the products that Apple produces, and goes to great effort to produce products people want.

    Yes, this model is not the same as the model for software for general-purpose computing devices (as in Windows or Mac OS computers), but instead looks very much like the model for software for game consoles. This is an area where I am not an expert – but have heard enough to be convinced that the barrier to entry and standards for game consoles (and the previous generation of ‘smart’ phones that has been steamrollered by the iPhone), are nowhere near as high as the barriers Apple sets.

    Apple is keenly aware that they are in a highly competitive market for smartphones. Google is leading the charge with the Android platform – and Google is a smart, fierce and ruthless competitor. There is quite a bit of competition between Android and the iPhone, for many reasons – the devices being produced for Android are quite good, and Android as a software platform is very powerful. Plus, the Android market is following an ideology compatible with what you seem to want – anyone can produce anything, minimal restrictions.

    The other smartphone platforms – Symbian, WebOS, Windows Mobile Marketing Name Of The Week Edition 7 – are out there too, but just don’t pose a threat.

    If anything, the arbitrary rejections from the App Store that Apple does hurts Apple’s competition. It gives the developers something to criticize, and gives them a disincentive from producing apps for the iOS platform. This is a point on which I have a lot of sympathy for the developers, and agree that Apple should do better – the rules for what will and will not be allowed need to be clear, and stated up front. If developers don’t produce quality apps for the iOS platform, then what incentive to consumers have to buy those devices — especially if there’s an alternate that has devices that are as good as Apple’s, and apps that are better?

    And to close – Apple is considered a “good guy” by many, because they produce devices that work, that people like, and have a company culture of customer service. Yes, there are anti-consumer aspects about some of Apple’s products and services – but in general, you will find that those are there at the insistence of media owners, and that Apple has managed to give the consumer the best deal possible.

  2. Capitan Holy Hippie
    Posted Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Sigh, I got some things slightly wrong in the above comment.

    On the barrier to entry for developing for game consoles, versus developing for the Apple App store – I meant to say that the barrier to entry for game consoles is much higher than the barrier to entry for the App store.

    On the Apple iPhone vs Google Android devices – it doesn’t help that in the US, the only carrier for the iPhone is AT&T. AT&T’s biggest competitor is Verizon, and there are people that find that Verizon works for them, and AT&T doesn’t. Hence, if they want a smartphone, they have to pick something that’s not a iPhone – and they are picking Android.

    John Gruber of Daring Fireball is one of the few people outside of Apple that seems to truly grok what it is that Apple is doing. He’s got lots of good criticism of the App store approval process. http://daringfireball.net/

    Tim Bray, currently a developer advocate for Google, has some strong opinions on Apple: http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/201x/2010/03/15/Joining-Google

    Ars Technica’s Infinite Loop blog has good quality journalism about Apple: http://arstechnica.com/apple/

    There’s many others.

  3. Posted Thursday, June 24th, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    My use of the term “free pass” was a poor choice of words. It overstates the case, implying “there is no criticism of Apple at all”, which isn’t true. What I really had in mind was “…compared to what I remember of the anti-Microsoft sentiment of the late ’90s and early Aughts.” Sure, there is criticism of Apple to be found (just as there was lots and lots of criticism of Microsoft). But there is also a hefty dose of defense of Apple. For example, your own defense here. There are a fair number of pro-Apple comments on Shifty Jelly’s blog — and then there was Shifty Jelly’s own entire pro-Apple post in April.

    Aside from blogs, there’s what I see happening out in the real world, on the street, in front of my face. When the iPad came out, three of them showed up at my workplace within a week of the release. That represents roughly 20% of my geek co-workers, all of whom spoke of it in glowing terms, and never felt any need to justify or defend their decisions. Compare that to geeks who used Microsoft products 10 years ago: We might have used them, but we generally felt like we had to make excuses for doing so, like it was something kind of shameful.

    This morning, I saw tweets from three different geek friends, waiting in line for hours at the Apple Store in San Francisco to get their iPhone 4s, and not a hint of any acknowledgment that there’s anything dubious about that. No self-deprecating remarks about Evil Empires or selling one’s soul, no excuses like “Well, I have to use this for work…”, none of the kinds of pre-emptive blame deflection that we’d normally see from geeks supporting a corporation with such anti-freedom policies.

    On a fundamental, deep-psychological level, most of the geeks I know on a face-to-face basis still consider buying Apple products an okay thing to do. Sure, some blogs may be criticizing Apple’s business practices, but where once geeks said “Don’t buy Microsoft; that’s supporting a monopolist who wants to de-commoditize the protocols that keep the Internet free and open”, they do not now say things like “Don’t buy Apple mobile products; that’s supporting a tightly closed and controlled system that upholds censorship, blocks interoperation efforts, and removes consumer choice.”

    Instead, they line up for hours in the cold to buy Apple products. And they proudly display their Apple products wherever they go. The writers of the critical blog posts may not be giving Apple “a free pass”, but the folks who are standing in line to give Apple money, and who are defending Apple online, are certainly not holding Apple’s feet to the fire the way we used to do to Microsoft. And that’s what I was getting at.

    And second, what sort of fallacious logic are you using to see this behavior as anti-competitive?

    I don’t understand the question. The phrase “anti-competitive practices” (and variations thereof) has been all over the news in regard to this. The first sentence of the Wall Street Journal article I linked to says, “The U.S. Federal Trade Commission will investigate whether Apple Inc.’s business practices harm competition in the market for software used on mobile devices” (emphasis added). Are the FTC and the news media using “fallacious logic”? Should the FTC not even be investigating?

    I’d ask what sort of logic you’re using to claim that the term doesn’t apply, but I don’t have to; you spent 5 paragraphs arguing that there’s competition in the marketplace, and that Apple’s tactics may even be harming it — neither of which negates that point that Apple’s tactics are intended to, and succeed in, keeping developers from competing with Apple’s own offerings in the market. For example, I can’t make an iPhone podcast app — it would compete with iTunes, and Apple doesn’t allow that. Shifty Jelly can no longer make a picture app; it apparently competes with something Apple’s doing or planning.

    I’m reminded of Microsoft’s attempts to claim, back during their antitrust trial, that the existence of Apple and of Linux was a defense against the government’s charges that MS was engaged in anti-competitive practices. It rang hollow then, and it rings hollow now.

  4. Capitan Holy Hippie
    Posted Friday, June 25th, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    John Gruber of Daring Fireball is the best person outside of Apple who can explain what is going on here. I strongly suggest reading through much of his longer essays. He’s got an excellent grasp of what the issues are, and can explain Apple’s stance very clearly.

    Now, I gather the issue you are most strongly worked up about here is the lack of freedom of developers to publish any and all software they want in Apple’s App store. Some recent pieces on this issue that are strongly recommended: It’s Not the Control, It’s the Secrecy and Regarding John Nack on Apple’s Control Over Native iPhone OS Software.

    Labeling Apple’s strict control over apps published in Apple’s app store as “Anti-Competitive” is missing the mark. There are fundamentally two different markets involved here – one for smartphone devices themselves, which is highly competitive; and one for software that runs on the devices. Apple’s App store policies do restrain developers as to what they can publish on the app store. You need to think of the market and rules in a different mindset, since this is an Apple-created and Apple-owned marked. Apple isn’t in competition with the developers. The developers create an add-on for Apple’s product, and it is up to Apple to determine the rules for the add-ons.

    It truly is a testament to the how good and compelling the iOS products are that developers desperately want to produce applications for them, and how upset they get when they can’t. The complaints usually don’t tell the whole story. Apple does not have a habit of commenting publicly on these issues, so all you hear is the story of the offended party, who tries to cast the story in a deceptive light – as in ‘freedom’ vs ‘censorship’.

    Beyond this … I don’t think I can convince you not to hate Apple, and I don’t really want to try. I’m saddened and disappointed that you can’t see the products my employer makes in a more positive light.

  5. Posted Monday, June 28th, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I don’t seem to have made myself very clear. I don’t know if I’m writing poorly, taking for granted that stuff inside my own head will be obvious, or if it’s just the usual Internet Meaning Distortion Effect. Anyway, briefly:

    The issue that I’m most worked up over isn’t the lack of developer freedom, it’s the geek reaction to the lack of freedom (and to Apple’s other behavior). Others may be claiming that Apple shouldn’t be allowed to do this; I’m simply saying: Given that this is the way Apple behaves, why are we geeks okay with this?

    Calling my emotions toward Apple “hate” is overstating the case. I am disappointed in them, and I think that even if the tight control they exert on their app ecosystem is legal, it isn’t very ethical. I wouldn’t consider run-of-the-mill app rejections/deletions to be “censorship”, but things like their bans on satire and sexuality are censorship. (Not government censorship, and so not a First Amendment issue, but very definitely a prior restraint on speech.)

    Whether I can view their products in a more positive light is a side issue; I’m concerned with Apple’s actions more than its products.

    But in this post, really, I was much more concerned with the geek community’s reactions to Apple’s actions. I’m calling out geeks as much as Apple itself. That’s why this was tagged with “geek culture”, among other things.

  6. Capitan Holy Hippie
    Posted Thursday, July 1st, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the answer to your question is pretty simple – there really aren’t that many geeks who are such absolutists about demanding the freedoms you want. I know that there is a vocal minority, who won’t use anything that isn’t fully GPL’ed. But group is truly a minority.

    As for the rest? Maybe we geeks just like well-designed products. I know I do.

    Also, the app store rejections rarely are as absolute as you seem to imply. Shifty Jelly’s ‘My Frame’ app is back in the App store. The ban on porn is real; the ban on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is not. The reviewers seemed to be a bit eager to reject satire, they have been corrected.

    The FTC investigation is widely seen as being done at Adobe’s request, because Adobe was miffed at Steve’s “Thoughts on Flash”.

One Trackback

  1. By Kagan MacTane on Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    New blog post: Apple: More Anticompetitive Than Microsoft – http://is.gd/cZCB0

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