Competition closed?

23 February, 2010

Apple has upset the developers (and users) of thousands of adult-themed apps, which it has pulled from its iPhone app store in the past few days.

One developer accused Apple of “experimenting with our livelihoods” and said the iPhone ecosystem was being “run by puritans”. However, Apple argued that it had received thousands of complaints from customers, in particular women and parents, objecting to material such as “Wobble” – an app which displayed pictures of women’s breasts.

This story demonstrates the effects of one of the growing trends in computing over the past couple of years: the adoption of closed platforms for mobile computing. Apple has led the way in this, but other platforms – such as Moblin, Android and Nokia’s Ovi store – are now encouraging (or even requiring) users to obtain their software from official app stores.

The point is not whether those who control these platforms are puritans or libertarians: rather, it is that (unlike “traditional” open computing systems) the applications which users can install and run on their devices are under that control in the first place. This is a significant change in computing practice, and the rows such as that over adult iPhone apps may be what propels this from being a “geek” issue to one of wider concern. (What happens when China, say, requires Apple to block politically-unacceptable apps?)

I wonder also how long it will be before someone brings a challenge against Apple and other gatekeepers under competition law. In the context of UK and EU competition law, there would seem a good case for saying that Apple has a “dominant market position” in the iPhone apps market – after all, setting aside “jailbroken” iPhones, its app store has a 100% market share for iPhone apps.

Developers finding themselves locked out of the iPhone app store may well consider Apple to be abusing that dominant position, in breach of competition law – especially given the rather different treatment of apps for “established” adult entertainment brands, such as Playboy, whose own app apparently remains available.

It would be interesting if the European Commission ended up forcing Apple (and others) to open up their platforms – though perhaps the market will take care of it in the meantime, as platform owners decide the risks of relaxing their grip on their devices are outweighed by the consequences of having to get involved in controversies such as that over Wobble and its fellow apps.