When it comes to Apple and the FCC, the status quo is king

Last week, Apple replied to the FCC’s request for information about the iPhone App Store approval process and specifically Apple’s supposed rejection of the Google Voice app. The iPod Observer covered the story in an article posted Friday. If you don’t already know the basics of Apple’s reply, read the iPO article. Then scroll down a bit more and check out the reader comments. The opinions expressed in these comments are quite divided.

On the one side, some welcome the FCC investigation and hope that the result is a more open approval process (or even the elimination of required approval altogether):

“So long as Apple does this approval process, it deserves every ounce of grief it gets from every corner it comes from.”

“I really think Apple should just go to a two level store; one for tested, vetted, and certified apps, and a danger zone where they test for the most basic safety but other than that it’s download at your own risk. Either that or let people install 3rd party apps from another source.”

For the record, I posted my own somewhat critical comment and previously posted an article that expressed a view similar to the “two level” approach.

Others believe that Apple should be largely left alone to do what it wants:

“I cannot believe this is an issue. It is their product. They every right to control it. To the chronic malcontents — if you don’t like the game, don’t play.”

“Those seeking a fundamentally different experience than what Apple’s trademark represents should perhaps consider a different phone.”

To the outside world, this internal squabbling may seem a bit perplexing. After all, aren’t we all part of the “Apple faithful,” the fanboys that believe Apple can do no wrong and that respond with rabid rage whenever a journalist writes anything at all critical of Apple?

No, we are not. This “Apple faithful” business is a myth, which I wish the media would abandon. Not only don’t we always agree with each other, not only do many of us tolerate criticism quite well, not only are we mostly quite civil in our discourse (but admittedly not always), but we are no longer a small minority remaining “faithful” as the tide of fortune turns against us. When it comes to MP3 players, for example, we are the dominant majority. So give it up already.

That said, I confess that, whenever I am critical of Apple and get negative comments in reply, too often my first reflex is to grab at the “Apple faithful” defense. That is, I dismiss the criticisms as coming from the irrational extreme end of Apple supporters, the ones who truly can never see Apple doing anything wrong.

On reflection, I know this is a too simple discount. There are two legitimate sides to most stories. In the App Store approval matter, for example, I understand that some people are perfectly happy with their iPhones as is, have never contemplated jailbreaking their iPhones and wouldn’t want any currently unapproved software. They would rather leave things alone than risk a change that could make things worse. On the other side, I obviously understand why some people might like to see Apple offer an iPhone with the same degree of openness as the Mac. I attempted to find a middle ground here (as described in my article cited above), but I can even understand how people might disagree with my compromise attempt.

On yet more reflection, I am beginning to think that the differences here represent something more fundamental, something political at its core. That is, these different views about Apple may primarily reflect a Republican vs. Democrat or Conservative vs. Liberal distinction.

On the one side, there are the free-market conservatives, who believe that government should leave businesses alone as much as possible, and let market forces have their way. On the liberal side, there are those who believe that substantial government regulation is needed to rein in the excesses of what greedy corporations would otherwise do if left unchecked.

My guess (and this is clearly only untested speculation) is that those supporting the “Apple: love it or leave it” view are from the right end of the political spectrum. Those that believe Apple should be more open in its policies, and perhaps be required to do so if they refuse on their own, are probably from the left side.

It’s the same division that is playing out, with much larger stakes, in our national policy right now — from regulation of Wall Street firms to consumer protection legislation to health care reform. It’s a war where the right wing is still winning many battles, despite the Obama election and the Democratic Congress. As Paul Krugman noted today in his New York Times column: “Washington, it seems, is still ruled by Reaganism — by an ideology that says government intervention is always bad, and leaving the private sector to its own devices is always good.”

I believe this view holds true for Apple as well. For better or worse, when the dust settles, the App Store approval process will almost certainly remain much the same as it is now. If there is any change, it will be because Apple desires it, not because it was forced to do so. Apple still rules its fiefdom and the status quo is still king of the land.