Monday, May 3, 2010

Inchoate musing: what does it mean to own a device?

There's talk that the DoJ is looking into antitrust action against Apple for their recent decree that iPhone / iPad developers only use Apple-approved tools, ie, C/C++/Objective-C under Xcode.

I don't really know how antitrust law works, but it's not clear to me that Apple's move violates it. Microsoft was only prosecuted for bundling IE because they already had a monopoly on desktop OS's; it would be hard to argue that Apple has a smart-phone monopoly.

But I still think Apple's wrong, and government intervention is probably right.

In my mind, this falls under the broader problem of technology companies prescribing some narrow range of approved uses for the products we buy. A pernicious example is the license shipping with every camera that records video as MPEG or h264, which forbids making any money off any video you record with a consumer-grade camera, because that would make your work "professional." So if you've ever uploaded a video to YouTube, you probably violated your license.

I think I'd like to see something like a Gadget Owner's Bill of Rights: if I buy it, I can use it as I see fit. The vendor can eschew support for altered devices, of course, but I can't be legally prevented from modifying the device, and third parties can't be prevented from helping me.  (And let's pass laws to keep the 'Net neutral, while we're at it!)

Only moderately tangential updateReddit links to another great example of the kind of legal machinations that enable device manufacturers to claim excessive control over what you do w/ your device: a 92 page Terms of Service agreement.


Jashugan said...

But I still think Apple's wrong, and government intervention is probably right.

How is Apple wrong here? I'm not sure you've made any argument against 3.3.1. Sure, you've mentioned other non-related issues: IE on Windows, which you rejected as being similar, and H.264 hidden licensing fees, which I don't think is that similar. What specifically is the harm of 3.3.1.?

I don't think that they've done anything more egregious than any of their other App Store policies. I actually think this is less harmful than arbitrarily rejecting apps for ridiculing public figures.

I think the reasons for not having a middleware layer are very compelling. It's not related to anti-trust at all, but with innovating at a high rate without the shackles of maintaining compatibility with middle-layer development platforms.

There are other, more important, things that I think the DOJ should look into:

1. why aren't there any other iPhone music store apps aside from iTunes? This stems for the iPod / iTunes dependency, which clearly Apple has a monopoly in.
2. why aren't any other browsers allowed on iPhone OS? (with real rendering engines, Opera Mini doesn't count)

kieran hervold said...

Unfortunately, I don't have the grasp of law required to speak of this in a truly informed manner, so I have trouble formulating specific changes to the law I'd like to see.

And we agree totally on the unpleasantness of Apple's arbitrary App rejection.

But regarding 3.3.1, I just have a visceral sense that they've overstepped their boundaries. This is vague, but I basically think it comes down to an affection for markets and competition.

I could imagine Ford requiring that anyone purchasing one of their cars sign an agreement restricting them to only Ford-branded shops and Ford-approved tools. The argument for this would be the same: if someone uses an inferior, unapproved wrench to remove their oil filter, they could strip the threading and cause damage to their engine! This would damage the image of Ford cars, and would be bad for the driver as well.

So the question becomes, is competition between Ford-approved mechanics (or Ford-approved wrenches) a more competitive and efficient one than competition between all mechanics (or all tools)? Which system is likelier to yield a quality product?

Jashugan said...

I think you're conflating SDK licenses and EULA's. 3.3.1 is an SDK license. Your Ford example mentions the end user (purchaser) of the Ford-branded card needing to sign something, which gives the impression that 3.3.1 is something binding to the end user, which it is not.

I just have a visceral sense that they've overstepped their boundaries. This is vague

Yes it is. Perhaps you can bring up why cross-platform apps produce better apps for end-users (doubtful). Or there will be a shortage of developers for the iPhone because they aren't able to use these middleware tools (unlikely).

kieran hervold said...

Your point about the SDK is wholly besides the point: if Fords (in the classic example) came w/ their hood locked shut and you had to sign an agreement in order to get the key, then you'd have the SDK situation. We take for granted than owning a car means having access to its internals; I'd like to see a similar regime around electronic devices.

Re: proof that allowing third-party tools will produce better Apps, well, I think I have the history of development on the desktop on my side. I happen to know that you use the Django libraries, written in Python, on a Mac OS X box. Did Apple create Python? Django?

Do you think Mac OS X would be more valuable if Python coders were barred from developing for it?