Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Killing Innovation: The iPhone Developer Program License Agreement...

Give it up for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Yesterday they managed to (legally) blow the lid off the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, and now we can all take a look at just how oppressive Apple has become to developers.

Basically, whenever someone or some company wants to create an iPhone app, they have to 1) register as an official developer with Apple by signing a license agreement and paying $100, and 2) submit their app for approval before it's listed in the App Store.

Here's the rub. Once you sign the agreement (copies of which are extremely scarce), Apple prohibits people from making any "public statements regarding this Agreement, its terms and conditions, or the relationship of the parties without Apple's express prior written approval."

In other words, you're not allowed to speak out and criticize it. Think about that! A curb on speech and commentary as a prerequisite for writing a dumb computer program. That's why you undoubtedly haven't heard too much about this tyranny before.

Well, the EFF has found a loophole. When they saw the "NASA App for iPhone", they used the Freedom of Information Act to ask NASA for a copy, so that the general public could see what rules controlled the technology they could use with their phones. A copy of the license agreement can now be found here.

I recommend reading the entire Agreement as well as the EFF's summary, but, in a nutshell, the license agreement...

  1. Bans developers from making "public statements" about the terms of the Agreement.

  2. Stipulates that developers can only distribute their apps on the App Store, and bans them from distributing their apps on competing app stores.

  3. Prohibits any type of reverse engineering (in spite of the fact that the courts have ruled that reverse engineering for interoperability is legal under the Fair Use Doctrine).

  4. Stipulates that, no matter what, Apple will never be liable to any developer for more than $50 in damages. As the EFF says, "So if Apple botches an update, accidentally kills your app, or leaks your entire customer list to a competitor, the Agreement tries to cap you at the cost of a nice dinner for one in Cupertino."

Apple has been able to get away with this simply because it is the sole gateway to the 40 million iPhones in circulation. And the reason we should all be concerned is that "no competition among app stores means no competition for the license terms that apply to iPhone developers."

What's needed is an emulation of what's worked for PCs for nearly 30 years... separate the software market from the hardware market. Competition and innovation suffer when customers and developers are "locked in" to one platform for life. Instead, just like with PCs, there should be many competing software developers for each platform, thereby creating a wider, more diverse array of products that are priced according to market principles rather than monopolistic controls.

The EFF has done us all a real service by tracking down Apple's license agreement. Now it's our turn to all speak out. Indeed, Apple has been acting as "a jealous and arbitrary feudal lord". Developers should demand better terms and customers who love their iPhones should back them.


At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've given up buying Apple products (although I still use the ones I already own) due to their "tyrannical" closed policies. Sadly, however, the company continues to innovate at a pace and quality unmet by any competitor. And you can't expect (most) consumers to care about these ridiculous policies. At the end of the day, whether they're plunking down $100+ for a new smartphone/mp3 player or $1+ for an app, consumers want to get the best product for their money. Call this a subjective statement if you wish, but it's near-fact that Apple produces the best products in these categories. Perhaps their only Achilles heel is their tie-in with AT&T, but even in light of that dreadful network, people continue to support Apple.

I guess what I'm saying is that these policies may stink, but until there's a real competitor don't expect the greater public to care, let alone express outrage. And as for developers: they're going where the money is, even if it means putting up with Apple's unfair, ambiguous policies.

Google's Android and others show hope, but until now, they've mostly been watered-down copycat versions of Apple's original innovation. We shall see whether one of these competitors truly finds a way to make a case for a sea change away from Apple, but I wouldn't expect the tipping point to be any time soon. And as much as I'm on your side, I highly doubt that minority activist blog pieces such as this one matter one inkling to Apple as they've seemed to find a nice (unfair) formula for success.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

I actually couldn't agree with you more, Anonymous, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. It's understandable why Apple is doing what it's doing, and also understandable why consumers keep buying their products. However, from a developer's perspective, it's immensely frustrating.

My claim is that if Apple continues down the course of policies it's been pursuing, then it's going to keep growing a developer-base that is essentially unhappy with them. Ultimately, creating a powder-keg of disgruntled programmers eager to switch to a viable alternative will come back to bite them, even if that's not in the immediate short-term future.

At 12:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you're right. However, my concern with your logic is that it assumes that developers will lead the sea change away from Apple. In reality, I believe that consumers will set the trend, which is mostly hardware-driven at the moment. And we all know who owns the hardware piece of the equation.

It would be interesting to revisit the case study of how Apple lost market share back in the 80's/90's. They had far superior hardware built upon a more stable operating system than DOS/Windows. But they stayed closed, much as they do now, which in my understanding, is what initially led to their downfall. Thing is - I don't know if there was a single moment or decision that caused the tides to turn in Microsoft's/other third party hardware manufacturers' favor. If there is one, would certainly be interested to know what it was and additionally, what Apple is doing differently today to prevent a repeat of history. Alas, I'm too lazy to do the research, so if you happen to know more on the topic, would be quite interested to read ;-)

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Hmmm... sounds like a challenge!

Check out this terrific article by Business Insider (which is hardly a bastion of anti-capitalism).

It highlights, as you did, that there are striking similarities between Apple's closed business model in the 80s compared to today.

The central lesson to be learned from Apple's Mac odyssey, I would argue, is that "software ubiquity" is more profitable and likely to succeed in the long run than is an insistence on total control. In other words, the PLATFORM trumps CONTROL.

If we use market share in the 80s as a metric, there was no single moment of Apple's decline nor of Microsoft's ascendancy. It was gradual. But to use your own reference, a "tipping point" was reached following the release of Windows 3.0 in 1990, thanks largely to the fact that there were more commercial and independent developers eager to write code for a single platform. Essentially, a pro-PC developer sentiment had been bubbling up gradually for years, and when the new Windows 3 platform was released, it triggered a massive migratory shift.

Developers, then and now, tend to prefer open platforms for a number of reasons - more freedom to write the types of programs they want, easier and cheaper access to code, APIs, and SDKs, etc. Thus, a freer environment led to more developers, more experimentation, and, ultimately, a greater diversity of software products for the PC. In the end, that is where consumers always go.

I would argue that this is unquestionably occurring again, right now. Studies in Computer Science journals have indicated a decisive preference among under-25 programmers for Android's open platform over the iPhone's. Additionally, on my own campus in which I teach, our Computer Science department recently made the decision to use Android as the development platform for our Mobile Computing class, principally because of the cost and the greater freedom that it affords us as instructors as well as the students themselves. This is happening on campuses globally.

So while the iPhone is a kick-ass device, and while it's the clear market leader at the moment, Apple's closed policies are already creating a mass army of next-generation programmers who are being educated using different platforms other than Apple's. There is also a lot of animosity building up against Apple in this same demographic, and the creative energy in the field, once solely Apple's domain, is already being shared with other platforms. I hesitate to make any predictions, however this scenario, in and of itself, can't be considered a positive development for them. History bears that out.

You're absolutely right to say that consumers will set the trend. But as a wider array of products become available on alternative devices - products that Apple refuses to allow on the iPhone, - it is that very consumer-driven principle which will force Apple into a choice between giving up some control or losing significant market share again.

At 7:45 PM, Blogger Fitz said...

Electronic Frontier Foundation is excellent, thanks to you I know about, follow and support them. Big ups for EFF.

At 2:03 AM, Blogger Webmaster said...

I appreciate the information. iphone development with iphone
is really grooming these days as demand for business and entertainment application is increasing.


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