Apple reaffirmed its intent to control what programs may legitimately run on its iPhone this week when the company revoked ad hoc distribution authority from a developer whose application it previously barred from distribution through the iTunes AppStore.
Last week, when Podcaster received official notice from Apple that the AppStore would not be carrying its application because the company had determined it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes, the developer decided to use Apple’s ad hoc distribution method to get the program into the hands of users who were willing to make a $10 ‘donation’ for the privilege of becoming beta-testers.
Tuesday, Apple revoked Almerica’s access to creating ad hoc licenses for the podcast downloading tool, prompting howls of protest from developers and consumers, many of whom have been skeptical of Apple’s intentions and critical of its business practices involving the AppStore from the very beginning.
Follow me after the jump to learn more about what’s behind the dispute and why Apple could be standing on shaky legal ground.
It’s no stretch to imagine Apple being miffed at Podcaster’s practice of charging money for an ad hoc copy of its application. Ad hoc distribution was originally intended as a method for getting software into the hands of testers and reviewers in advance of its appearing for public distribution in the AppStore. Podcaster’s move to utilize it as an alternative method for revenue-generating distribution would understandably rankle the bean counters in Cupertino, especially since Apple was being cut out of the 30% slice of revenue it would have been owed if the app sold through the AppStore.
But by denying Podcaster access to distribution through the AppStore, as well as controlling the developer’s ability to distribute legitimately outside that channel, Apple appears to be staking ground on the precipice of monopoly control over applications that can be legally run on the iPhone. Phone News writer Christopher Price says, “This puts Apple in a dangerous legal position. Before [Tuesday], Apple had rights to assert that the App Store was only one sales channel, which they had every right to control. Now Apple is asserting rights to control any and all sales channels of software to iPhone owners.”
A Washington, DC-based commercial litigator who asked not to be identified, told Cult of Mac, “Apple seems to be banking on their economic leverage here. It will be the rare developer with deep enough pockets to challenge them in an anti-trust action, which could take years and many hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute successfully.”
Another impediment to the anti-competitive legal claims of shunned developers lies in the fact that iPhones can be ‘jailbroken,’ enabling them to accept any application properly designed to run on them, a realm of development and distribution over which Apple has little control beyond its ability to disable the functionality of jailbroken phones using the latest versions of updated firmware.
There’s clearly a robust game of cat and mouse at play between Apple and the third party development community, in what seems to be a wide-open arena of largely untested legal ground. For its part, Apple continues to add bricks to its walled garden, reportedly now issuing notices to rejected developers that include non-disclosure language purporting to put them under threat of legal action for disclosing or discussing publicly the reasons their applications were denied entry to the AppStore.
Noted academic authority Jonathan Zdiarski has officially lodged an open protest with Stanford University complaining that Apple’s control over iPhone application development and distribution “effectively neuters competition and unfairly restricts the free and open exchange of information by developers.” Some have gone so far as to intimate the possibility that Apple’s practices imply an intent to steal ideas from developers.
As the iPhone continues to gain popularity in the lucrative smartphone market and the possibility of striking it rich as an iPhone developer becomes more solidified in the public’s imagination, it is difficult to believe Apple’s control over the route to fame and fortune, and its behavior as the traffic cop on that route, will not come under more and more scrutiny.