With the Feds reportedly only "days away" from launching a full-scale antitrust inquiry, Apple is reportedly tweaking its iPhone and iPad developer program to dodge a probe into its business practices. At issue may be Apple's ability to tightly control the mobile platforms it has invented.
For all the noise Steve Jobs has made about the technical weaknesses of Adobe Flash, the fight is really about Apple's ability to control the software that runs on its platforms. Jobs wants to protect the iPad and iPhone from being watered down by generic, cross-platform mobile applications, including those based on Flash.
Jobs has done this through recent changes to Apple's developer agreement that have the effect of preventing applications built for his company's devices from running on other companies' mobile devices.
Now, investigators are reportedly ready to look at whether the agreement is anticompetitive and violates federal law. I wish they'd back off, and I think customers will be better for it if they did.
Apple wants its developers to build apps that differentiate its products from all others, incorporating whatever magic Apple chooses to build into them. Apple wants apps that highlight its platforms' strengths and disguise their weaknesses.
Cross-platform applications, such as those created with Adobe's new CS5, might be easier for developers to build and their efforts could be leveraged across Apple, Google, Research In Motion, and Microsoft mobile devices.
In response, Apple changed its developer agreement to require iPad/iPhone apps to be created using only Apple's own tools. Further, Apple said it would refuse access to the Apps Store for Adobe Flash-based applications, effectively barring them from customers using Apple's hardware.
Again, the issue isn't Flash, per se, but the ability of developers to use Adobe CS5 to build a single Flash-based application that can run on all the most popular mobile devices.
Those apps, however, might be limited to a set of most-common cross-platform features, causing them to look and behave the same on all platforms that supported them. This could destroy the aura of exclusivity that Apple enjoys, as well as the total control it today enjoys over its platforms.
In short, if you're Steve Jobs and Apple, cross-platform applications are a headache to be avoided at all cost, except perhaps, having to fight government regulators in court.
Keeping Apple Honest
My take: It is easy to paint Steve Jobs as the evil menace here. It's easy to say Apple gets away with control tactics that Microsoft never tried, even in its most dominating moments. And those things may be true.
But, it is also true that forcing developers to build Apple-specific applications is the best way for Apple to move its platform forward. It allows Apple to release new technologies, decide how they will be used and by whom, and limit the ability of those same apps to appear on other companies' devices.
I don't see anything wrong with that.
As the market grows, other platforms will--if they give customers value--see their application libraries and developer communities grow. I am not sure Google, Microsoft, et al, could ever be as exclusive (and excluding) as Apple, but it's possible.
Or maybe having applications that run across multiple devices will become a big win for customers and Apple will be forced to relent, as it is already doing by adding multitasking features to the next version of iPhone OS.
Apple has done an excellent job of giving customers what they want. While Apple dominates mobile devices today, its large, well-heeled competitors will gain strength over time. Especially, if Apple does things to slow the innovations that customers want to buy.
Android, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry, along with Adobe's Flash and CS5 development suite, should be enough to keep Apple honest. For now, I don't believe federal help is required.
My advice to Apple: Stick to your guns, and your developer agreement.