Apple Facing Possible Government Probe Over iPhone Developer Restrictions

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The U.S. government is apparently preparing to launch an inquiry into Apple’s policy that blocks iPhone and iPad app developers from using non-natives tools, such as Adobe Flash, according to the New York Post. Apple upset some developers recently when it changed its rules to prohibit iPhone OS app development with tools that let coders write apps that can be cross-compiled to run on multiple platforms.

Unnamed sources close to the situation claim the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission are debating which agency will look into Apple’s new policy. The concern is that the policy stifles competition by blocking iPhone app developers from developing software that runs on any mobile device instead of only on the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad.

When Apple updated its developer agreement for the unreleased iPhone OS 4 developer agreement, a clause that prohibited compilers that don’t rely on C, C++ and Objective-C calls to Apple’s APIs caught the attention of many people and companies. Adobe quickly floated to the top of that list thanks to its disappointment that its new Flash CS5 tools for converting Flash-based apps into native iPhone apps fell into that camp.

A grass roots effort to allow Flash development for the iPhone quickly came to life thanks to many Adobe product users, and ultimately led to an open letter from Apple CEO Steve Jobs explaining the company’s position.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen fired back with accusations that the Flash-related problems Mr. Jobs cited were either “patently false,” or issues with Apple’s operating systems.

An inquiry into Apple’s actions don’t necessarily mean the company is facing a full-on government investigation. Instead, an inquiry helps the agencies determine whether or not an investigation is needed.

The Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice have not commented on the possible inquiry.

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14 Comments Leave Your Own

Khaled

might as well get it over with as soon as possible

Lee Dronick

Taking the emotions out of the picture, is there a good reason from a programming aspect to requiring the use of C, C++, and Objective C? I am looking at security, performance, reliability and such, do they factor in?

Tiger

This is a serious question to hopefully get a serious answer and not the regular daily banter on this topic.  Do compilers that rely on C, C++ and Objective-C ONLY work on Apple’s devices, or do they also work on other mobile devices as well? Just because Flash works with (or makes that INTENDS TO WORK WITH) other phone makers’ handsets, doesn’t make it the end-all be all solution. In fact, it’s so far from being a solution, this whole point seems moot.

But governing bodies and their infinite wisdom could royally screw up. Again. This could have much broader repercussions considering how closed the gaming industry has been at certain points with developers and platforms.

If these 3 languages aren’t restrictive to just Apple’s platform, it seems that the point is moot.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

It will be really freaking cool to see all my Apple friends turn into free market libertarians soon! A couple sites that are worth reading everyday to give you a wider picture of libertarianism:

Reason.com

Cafe Hayek

geoduck

Do compilers that rely on C, C++ and Objective-C ONLY work on Apple?s devices, or do they also work on other mobile devices as well?

That will be the heart of the question. Can someone develop in C+ for the iPhone and then port it to Android? If so then this question will fade away. If these apps are iPhone only and the developer has to start over for others then this might become a sticky legal issue for Apple. Unlike desktop computers Apple does have a huge influence on the smartphone market. One that is bigger than its market share.

Tiger

Thanks Geo. So, I the heart of the matter will be cross platform issues and dictating who can do what.

I was wondering if it was kind of like the company that makes the GPS software and maps for my car being the ONLY source and developer for it and it dictating that I can ONLY buy the upgrade for it from the dealer. It runs nowhere else and I have to buy it from the only source they dictate.

But if it can be written in those 3 languages and ported to other platforms and compilers, it sounds like they’ve already answered their own question of competition versus exclusion. I’m locked in exclusively. Yet it’s perfectly legal.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

This is a serious question to hopefully get a serious answer and not the regular daily banter on this topic.? Do compilers that rely on C, C++ and Objective-C ONLY work on Apple?s devices, or do they also work on other mobile devices as well? Just because Flash works with (or makes that INTENDS TO WORK WITH) other phone makers? handsets, doesn?t make it the end-all be all solution. In fact, it?s so far from being a solution, this whole point seems moot.

AAPL is up 4.65 on your question grin.

C, C++, and Objective-C are languages, like English, except a lot more difficult for humans to read, write, and comprehend. So maybe more like Klingon.

Platforms like iPhone OS, Mac OS X, Windows, and Android have APIs (application programming interfaces), that is, a set of commands that tell the platform what to do. A command might be something that means “save this file here” or “draw this shape here”. Commands usually have a mnemonic name and a set of specific (often ordered) parameters. For example, to open a file for saving, you might use the standard C API (from memory, I probably botched this):

  fileHandle = open(path, “rw”);

where fileHandle is an integer that holds a unique system open file handle number, path is a string containing the full path of the file, and “rw” signifies read and write permissions.

A platform’s API typically favors the use of a particular language. Mac OS X and iPhone OS use Objective-C calling conventions and object model, but are compiled to processor-native binaries (e.g. ARM or x86). Android apps run on a Java virtual machine, so naturally would be written in Java and compiled to Java byte code. But, it is fairly common to have some code you want to use already working in some other language (e.g. Pascal or even FORTRAN) but not want to rewrite it. So modern development environments might be able to cross-compile to the desired target or link in those older modules for use in the preferred native language.

The key point of translators and middleware that bridge languages, platforms, or whatever is that they save the individual developer work. It makes tremendous economic sense for a developer to leverage what they’ve already got, or just do the job once rather than many times for the same effect. So if you have 20,000 developers who need to write software that runs on Mac and Windows, and they could write to a common third party API in a common third party language, and then the third party does the work of building that bridge that goes to Mac and Windows just once, you save a lot of effort over those 20,000 developers each writing separate apps for Mac and Windows. You also get the benefit of whatever that third party environment does very well having a chance of being predictably good on both platforms for everyone.

That in a nutshell is the point of Flash. Now, does Flash have some historical performance problems on Mac OS? Yes. Is it doing a lot of work that could drain battery? Yeah. But compare to, say SVG (a web standard supported by Safari and Mozilla but not IE) for animations, and SVG is typically twice the processor hog for similar animations! Does Flash face a lot of vocal hatred in the Mac community? Yeah. And yet it’s still the best option for animation for performance and availability over a wide range of devices. Pure video? Sure, H.264 should get most of that. H.264 doesn’t have any DRM possibilities, which makes it problematic for some content providers. But there’s no reason YouTube needs to wrap up most user submitted content in Flash for devices that can play H.264.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

That will be the heart of the question. Can someone develop in C+ for the iPhone and then port it to Android? If so then this question will fade away. If these apps are iPhone only and the developer has to start over for others then this might become a sticky legal issue for Apple. Unlike desktop computers Apple does have a huge influence on the smartphone market. One that is bigger than its market share.

It is usually more work and more costly than a write-once, deploy many solution. It gets especially costly after initial development, when new features or bug fixes are being considered, but have to be weighed against two disjoint code bases and the desire for feature parity.

It also means that, let’s say, for 2000 apps written under such a process, the platform specific stuff (e.g. notifications or polite multitasking behavior) has to be done right 2000 times 2 equals 4000 times. Whereas, if these developers are all using the same cross-platform tool, it has to be done right twice by the tool vendor.

Apple of course has all sorts of economic incentives as the dominant mobile app platform vendor to try to set the costs of developing exclusively for its platform low, while making the costs of going cross-platform high. Unfortunately, their approach drastically increased the costs of supporting multiple platforms for third party developers. That game in isolation will eventually confine Apple to a small niche in the app market as other vendors embrace “coopetition” in a “choose anything but Apple” response.

What is particular damaging and disingenuous about the rhetoric from Apple is that is casts aspersions on middleware by picking examples of middleware that failed and failing to balance consideration with middleware that succeeded. There is a very special circle of Hell for Steve Jobs for that kind of dishonesty. Dante told me so.

Ref Librarian

You believe in talking ghosts, too, Bosco?

Tiger

Ok, having digested most of that, which is difficult since I’ve not had any coffee and a very stressful few days, more questions come up.

First off, your statement
“The key point of translators and middleware that bridge languages, platforms, or whatever is that they save the individual developer work.”

That’s fine and good if they actually keep up with their stuff and it actually works. But isn’t that the heart of the issue between Apple and Adobe? Adobe failed to keep up. Heck, they not only failed, they failed repeatedly to do what they said the would do. So is it Apple’s job to continue to make it easy for them, or to put out guidelines on what will and what won’t work for their own platform?

And for Adobe to say that flash is cross platform already on mobile devices is standing on a pillar of salt. Flash may support video on what, three mobile devices total? Yeah, it includes H.264. That’s fine, but H.264 doesn’t NEED Flash to run. It’s just a wrapper. And it’s poor. Just poor at best.

So, when YouTube, CNN, Reuters, New York Times, ESPN, Netflix, NPR, ABC, WSJ, and so many other media outlets are ready to move forward on a new standard, how is this still a big issue? It sounds more and more like Adobe whining to remain relevant and Apple whining that they are more relevant.

There’s a lot of whine to be shared all around apparently.

jameskatt

This will be much ado about nothing.

When it comes to Antitrust problems, the question would be WHAT IS THE MARKET in question?

If the market is Computer Applications - because the iPhone platform is a computer platform - then there IS NO CASE.  After all, Apple is NOT restricting what developers do on other platforms.  After all, Nintendo and Sony have much stricter restrictions on what can be done on their platform - the Nintendo Wii and the Sony Playstation and Playstation portable. There are hundreds of thousands of apps on the iPhone platform itself, demonstrating that developers can develop apps and be competitive on that platform.

If the market is Computers - then there IS NO CASE.  The iPhone platform - including the iPad - has a huge amount of competition.

If the market is Cell Phones - then there IS NO CASE.  The iPhone platform has billions of other competitors.

Thus, there is no case. There is no antitrust.  Apple has no monopoly.  Move on.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Tiger, let’s split video out from animation. Video that doesn’t require DRM for availability should move to H.264 as soon as video hosts can convert it. There might be a little squabbling here and there because of future licensing issues for publishers who are a little bit above the MPEG-LA radar, but that’s minor, and there isn’t a lot of resistance to it.

So we get to Flash animations and the Flash plugin. Or we just get to Adobe in general… I strongly disagree with the assessment of Adobe as lazy and foot-dragging at all. Apple makes majot changes to its game every couple of years, while Microsoft just stays the course, and all the constant Apple innovation has gotten us to a point where Windows 7 and Snow Leopard are a wash for most people who aren’t religious about it. But let’s assume they are and all sorts of damage to Apple and its customers has been done because of that. Apple should use a rifle against Adobe rather than a sawed off shotgun against the industry. 3.3.1, for example, is horrible, divisive politics. It has turned Apple from a ‘love mark’ to a “douche mark” (not to be confused with German currency) in the minds of many influential people in the industry.

Here’s a list of devices that at some point had Flash Lite, which could play most Flash 7, 8, or 9 content: http://www.adobe.com/mobile/supported_devices/handsets.html

It’s a moving target. Flash 10.1 on Android, BlackBerry, webOS, etc. looks promising. AIR deployment—making native apps from Flash—promises to be the easiest development path for a whole class of games and web interactive apps. You just can’t fight the economics of development. If I can build an app with Flash and AIR that performs just fine and takes me a month, you have to have a really compelling case for me to use a different tool that takes 3 months. End-users will quickly see the downstream effects of more rapid development with more frequent and relevant updates, better pricing, and more polished apps.

But hey, Adobe is bad so cross-platform development is evil. Steve said so.

Ref Librarian

Let’s look at what Bosco really said - Flash looks

promising
promises
If I can build…

In other words, Flash doesn’t work right now but it might sometime in the future. If it does, I’m sure that Apple will reconsider their position about Flash.

As for the person vitriol towards a man that I don’t think Bosco knows, that’s a little unhealthy. That might improve, who knows?

Nemo

The Federal Government (Government) would a difficulty time making an antitrust case because Apple has only about 16% of the smartphone market.  That isn’t sufficient market power to hinder competition.  This is especially true, where every other maker of smartphones has declare that they will support Flash.

Apple can also defend on the grounds that its ban of cross compiler and translators (Translators) is pro competitive.  First, as argued by Apple, Apple has good technical grounds for wanting to keep cross complied software off of its mobile devices.  There is plenty of substandard software that is substandard because it is made with Translators generally and Adobe’s Flash in particular.  It is an easy case to show how Translators lead to the creation of mediocre software. 

Secondly, Apple can argue that its stand is actually pro competitive in two ways:  (1)  It promotes differentiation and avoids the commoditization of mobile operating systems that comes from the prevalence of third party Translators; that differentiation enhances competition among smartphones, and (2) by promoting open-source tools (HTML5, CSS, Javascript, and tools based on them), Apple offers new competition to Adobe’s virtual monopoly in software for video, interactive webpages, and games on the Web. 

It is also the case that Apple’s Section 3.3.1 does not appear to prohibit any third party from making tools for developing software for Apple’s mobile devices.  It simply, however, requires that any such tools be constructed from open-source standard technologies, rather than proprietary technologies that can and, in Adobe case, has permitted one company, Adobe, to be the gate keeper for video and interactive content on the Web.  By requiring the use of open-source technologies to builds tools, everyone can compete on the merits and virtues of his tools, rather than rely on proprietary and monopoly standards to force developers to use the monopolist’s, Adobe’s, tools and force OEMs of mobile OSs to both support the monopolist’s standards and abandon any innovation that the monopolist declines to support in its tools, even where the monopolist, such as Adobe, is blocking innovation because it will lead to competition that will erode its monopoly or simply because it doesn’t want to spend the money to keep pace with innovation.

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