Then, in 2008, Apple announced a software development kit for the iPhone. Third-party developers would be welcome to write software for the phone, in just the way they’d done for years with Windows and Mac OS. With one epic exception: users could install software on a phone only if it was offered through Apple’s iPhone App Store. Developers were to be accredited by Apple, and then each individual app was to be vetted, at first under standards that could be inferred only through what made it through and what didn’t. For example, apps that emulated or even improved on Apple’s own apps weren’t allowed.
The original sin behind the Microsoft case was made much worse. The issue wasn’t whether it would be possible to buy an iPhone without Apple’s Safari browser. It was that no other browser would be permitted—or, if permitted, it would be only through Apple’s ongoing sufferance. And every app sold for the iPhone would have 30 percent of its price (and later, that of its “in-app purchases”) go to Apple. Famously proprietary Microsoft never dared to extract a tax on every piece of software written by others for Windows—perhaps because, in the absence of consistent Internet access in the 1990s through which to manage purchases and licenses, there’d be no realistic way to make it happen.
Fast forward 15 years, and that’s just what Apple did with its iOS App Store.
In 2008, there were reasons to think that this situation wasn’t as worrisome as Microsoft’s behavior in the browser wars. First, Apple’s market share for mobile phones was nowhere near Microsoft’s dominance in PC operating systems. Second, if the completely locked-down iPhone of 2007 (and its many counterparts) was okay, how could it be wrong to have one that was partially open to outside developers? Third, while Apple rejected plenty of apps for any reason—some developers were fearful enough of the ax that they confessed to being afraid to speak ill of Apple on the record—in practice, there were tons of apps let through; hundreds of thousands, in fact. Finally, Apple’s restrictiveness had at least some good reason behind it independent of Apple’s desire for control: rising amounts of malware meant that the PC landscape was shifting from anarchy to chaos. The wrong keystroke or mouse click on a PC could compromise all its contents to a faraway virus writer. Apple was determined not to have that happen with the iPhone.
By late 2008, there was even more reason to relax: the ribbon was cut on Google’s Android Marketplace, creating competition for the iPhone with a model of third-party app development that was a little less paranoid. Developers still registered in order to offer software through the Marketplace, but once they registered, they could put software up immediately, without review by Google. There was still a 30 percent tax on sales, and line-crossing apps could be retroactively pulled from the Marketplace. But there was and is a big safety valve: developers can simply give or sell their wares directly to Android handset owners without using the Marketplace at all. If they didn’t like the Marketplace’s policies, it didn’t mean they had to forgo ever reaching Android users. Today, Android’s market share is substantially higher than the iPhone’s. (To be sure, that market share is inverted in the tablet space; currently 97 percent of tablet Web traffic is accounted for by iPads. But as new tablets are introduced all the time—the flavor of the month just switched to Kindle Fire, an Android-based device—one might look at the space and see what antitrust experts call a “contestable” market, which is the kind you want to have if you’re going to suffer market dominance by one product in the first place. The king can be pushed down the hill.)
With all of these beneficial developments and responses between 2007 and 2011, then, why should we be worried at all?
The most important reasons have to do with the snowballing replicability of the iPhone framework. The App Store model has boomeranged back to the PC. There’s now an App Store for the Mac to match that of the iPhone and iPad, and it carries the same battery of restrictions. Some restrictions, accepted as normal in the context of a mobile phone, seem more unfamiliar in the PC landscape.
For example, software for the Mac App Store is not permitted to make the Mac environment look different than it does out of the box. (Ironic for a company with a former motto importuning people to think different.) Developers can’t add an icon for their app to the desktop or the dock without user permission, an amazing echo of what landed Microsoft in such hot water. (Though with Microsoft, the problem was prohibiting the removal of the IE icon—Microsoft didn’t try to prevent the addition of other software icons, whether installed by the PC maker or the user.) Developers can’t duplicate functionality already on offer in the Store. They can’t license their work as Free Software, because those license terms conflict with Apple’s.