Benefits of iPhone App Store tainted by 1984-like Control

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Do We Really Like the Taste of Apple's Remote-Kill KoolAid?

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a story about Apple’s App Store for the iPhone. Clearly, having an easy way for mobile users to download apps is a good way to spur development and make money. According to Apple, over the past month the App Store has sold $30 million in iPhone and iPod touch apps. Of those sales, Apple should take in about $9 million, as it keeps about 30% of each app sold. While some application developers have complained about the revenue split, when one considers the costs associated with hosting the applications, cost of money changing hands, and general maintenance of the store, 30% is not unreasonable. What is increasingly unreasonable is the way Apple is controlling the App Store, both to the detriment of developers and consumers.

iPhone Application Development

I have written about the official software development kit, or SDK, that Apple provided earlier this year. Apple requires developers to color within the lines that it dictates, allowing a far smaller subset of the iPhone’s abilities to be tapped by software writers. Apple’s Fight Club approach to software development uses a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, to prevent developers from talking about their experience. This NDA severely limits a coder from talking about their experience, learning from others, and writing better applications. But I’m just an iPhone user, listen to what the developers themselves are saying (those who are willing to step outside the NDA, that is).

Arbitrary App Store

The App Store is the only Apple-sanctioned venue where an iPhone app can be found for download for the mainstream market (I put that “mainstream market” caveat in because Apple does permit limited ad hoc downloads for beta testing applications and for enterprise only applications). But this market place is not openly available to every developer that wishes to sell its wares. Apple has strict control over what appears in the store. Whether it’s a backlog due to popularity of the App Store, or it’s due to more subjective reasons, iPhone App developers are not happy that the apps they’ve already submitted to Apple aren’t appearing in the store.

Once your app gets into the App Store, that doesn’t mean it stays there. A handful of applications, that we know about, have been removed and each for a different, fairly subjective reason. “I Am Rich” was removed, according to Apple because of a “judgement call” it decided to make. Apple removed “Slasher” for being “objectionable”. “Box Office” and “Net Share” have been removed for undisclosed reasons. “Phone Saber” was removed at the behest of the company that owns the rights to Star Wars games on mobile devices, and I might suggest that this may have been the only legitimately removed app, as it feels the most like a DMCA 512 take down (as Lucasfilms presumably owns the copyright in the specific expression of a light saber's sound).

Remote Kill Switch

Most recently, we discover that as part of the software that developers are required to use to make their iPhone apps, there is a hidden kill switch. It was originally thought of as a kill switch, then as benign as a way to remotely limit certain application’s access to location information. But now it seems that the original fears were true. Apple’s iPhone software lets Apple (and presumably Apple only, although that has not been confirmed), remotely disable the application of its choice. In the WSJ article, Apple confirmed their ability to do this, and claimed that it was needed in case Apple inadvertently allowed “a malicious program—one that stole users’ personal data, for example— to be distributed to iPhones through the App Store.” Steve Jobs’ quote is all over the web this morning: “Hopefully we never have to pull that lever, but we would be irresponsible not to have a lever like that to pull.”

What?! Did the writer’s jaw drop after that response? If not, why not? The thought that someone, without my knowledge, had control over my personal property—and at their whim could remotely disable it—is astonishing. What is Apple’s definition of “malicious” as compared to its “judgement call” or what it considers “objectionable” for those other apps? This is what the WSJ’s story should have been all about, but instead the writer spends just three sentences of this full page article discussing this “remote kill switch.” He didn’t appear to ask a single developer or iPhone user if they knew this could happen to the apps they’ve written or purchased.

The iPhone is a dedicated mobile computer that connects to the wireless phone network, does that make it okay if someone has remote control over your phone vs. over your personal computer? My contacts and other personal information are just as available on my Mac as they are on my phone, but Apple doesn’t have a remote control of my Mac, does it?

There are appropriate ways to address spyware, taking control of the user’s computer is not one of them. Today, when spyware gets released, the word gets out. If it were mistakenly created by Apple, Apple would release a patch and users would update their computers. Or maybe more savvy people tell us how to solve the problem. But we don’t give Apple, Dell, Microsoft, HP, Google, or any other software/hardware seller remote control over our purchases and devices. And don’t even try to pretend that what Apple is doing here with the iPhone is the equivalent of a “software update.” Those are completely different and with each, the user not the software provider, is given the choice of making the update. Here, it appears that Apple is the one that gets to “pull that lever,” and the user and software developer are left out in the cold. Is this kind of remote control what Apple has in mind for its computers, too?

Where is the outrage?! Why weren’t iPhone buyers told upfront that Apple had this capability? Did developers using the SDK know about this when they signed up, or were they unwilling accomplices? If they did know, did Apple’s NDA hold back a whistle blower from coming forward?

If Microsoft “pulled” something like this, everyone would be crying bloody murder. But with Apple, people seem to not mind the taste of Jobs’ Kool-Aid.

Apple’s Control: More Problems than Benefits?

I think Jobs’ comment is pretty darn arrogant. It’s safety propaganda—an “its for all our own good” argument—that college Econ professors warn you about. It’s the kind of policy argument that is made in the halls of Capital Hill, with tongue in cheek. But could Apple’s control be its eventual legal undoing? Apple reviews each and every app that sells in the App Store. Would it be eligible for the DMCA 512 safe harbor if someone infringes another’s copyright—like the Phone Saber app? Could Apple be held secondarily liable for the infringement of another, unlike hosting ISPs which generally don’t inspect content. Are there any Sect. 230 implications?

On the developer side, are apps less likely to push the boundaries and provide innovative features, because the developer wants to make sure it gets is software in, and stays in, the App Store? What about the developer that has an app that competes against Apple’s own app? What is the standard by which Apple judges something inappropriate? Where’s the transparency? Why didn’t Apple tell developers and iPhone purchasers up front that it could remotely control or, at least disable applications if it’s not so controversial? Will developers see Apple’s control overbearing and a reason not to develop for the iPhone platform? Will more developers turn to writing more capable software for hacked, or “jailbroken” iPhones?

Apple is better than this, or at least it used to be. It propped itself up as an organization for all consumers in the name of freedom, that fought against the 1984 kind of total control. It’s almost chilling to read the propaganda shouted by the big face on the screen, 24 years ago, in that famous Apple Superbowl ad:

Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology. Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths…

It was Apple itself that assured us that 1984 wouldn’t be like 1984 for the PC industry with the introduction of the Macintosh computer. Many of us believed that the iPhone would start that same kind of revolution in the mobile market. If Apple doesn’t change its ways, perhaps it will be left to the jailbreak app developers to hurl that hammer into the screen, and keep us free from the control.

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