2010-05-11

Apple & The Dark Cloud of the App Store

Bruce Tognazzini (often known as "Tog"), the well known user interface designer who was once very influential at Apple, recently wrote a column on the issue of editorial control at iPhone App Store entitled Apple & the Dark Cloud of Censorship.

The problem, for those not aware of it, has two parts. First, you cannot download apps for your iPhone (or iPod touch, iPad, or similar device) except through the App Store. (Developers and hackers have ways around this, but the techniques have certain downsides and are more work than most of the general public are willing to do.) Second, Apple's approval process is long, arduous, and somewhat capricious. It can take weeks even to get a bug fix through the process for an application that's already been approved, and many applications that compete with Apple's applications, are of poor quality, or are just not in good taste are not given approval at all. This has been a complaint on developer blogs for some time now, is discussed on Wikipedia, and has even been picked up by mainstream media.

By comparison, handsets and devices running Google's Android operating system don't have these restrictions.

Tog's Take

I certainly agree with Tog that the strict editorial control imposed by Apple is a problem for several different reasons, and I think his solution has some good points, but I think he also goes wrong in many ways in his article.

My less important disagreement is that I don't like his calling this "censorship," and suggesting that this restrains political expression. "Censorship" is a pretty heavy word, applying as it does not only publishers exerting editorial control, but to governments restricting the ability of someone to say something anywhere at all. There are certainly many other avenues in the world for people to publish their political opinions. Should the government, say, force Apple to publish opinions it disagrees with, that would be nearly as bad, from a free speech point of view, as government censorship of opinions. Apple must be free to publish what they like on their platform just as others must be free in the same way. If this hurts Apple's competitiveness (which I think it's clear it does, in certain ways), that's Apple's decision. (Of course Tog, as a shareholder in Apple, has some say in this decision.)

But my greater disagreement is that I think there are other factors in this issue that Tog is downplaying or ignoring. We can't know, of course, exactly what Apple's motives are in exerting fairly draconian editorial control, but I doubt it's strictly to do with avoiding offending users, be they people who dislike porn or people who dislike political cartoons mocking certain religions.

I suspect that the two biggest issues Apple believes it's dealing with is having a good quality user experience for downloaded applications and avoiding legal complaints, as well as informal ones, about content.

The Quality of the "User Experience"

As Tog points out:

Apple is, in my opinion, doing all of us an important service by looking at each and every app to test for conformance to interface and anti-malware standards.

It's true that this is a valuable service, and one that many Windows users wish was available to them, but there's more to it than this.

At the beginning of the 1980s the home video game market had taken off in a big way. One of the biggest changes from previous programmable consumer devices was the ability of third parties to develop and distribute programs. Systems such as the Atari 2600 had a cartridge slot; any company that wished could write a video game, produce it as a cartridge, and sell it. This resulted in an enormous proliferation of software for the platform.

Of course, with such openness came software of varying quality. There were a lot of bad games out there, and a lot of disappointed consumers. Hardware manufacturers in particular appear to believe that this was one of the major factors in the subsequent video game market crash. From that Wikipedia page:

There were several reasons for the crash, but the main cause was supersaturation of the market with hundreds of mostly low-quality games. Hundreds of games were in development for 1983 release alone, and this overproduction resulted in a saturated market.

The market stayed depressed for years, and Atari, the largest and most successful video game manufacturer of the time, never really recovered from this. Dozens of other companies and software development divisions vanished forever.

The recovery eventually came with the Nintendo Entertainment System (note how it was not referred to as a "video game" console) which contained some special locking hardware within the cartridges and the console to ensure that nobody could produce a game for the console without Nintendo's approval. Since then, no major console system has appeared without such hardware or software locks and a strict developer and game approval process (far stricter than that of Apple's App Store) on the part of the console manufacturer.

This persists to this day even with console systems, such as Sony's PSP Go Playstation Portable system, that use only software downloaded from the vendor's on-line store (rather than discs or cartridges purchased through retail outlets) and compete, at least on the games front, with the iPhone. While Sony has introduced a new PSP Mini category of games with a much cheaper and more streamlined approval process, it's still more strict than Apple's.

Now some of you may be asking yourselves at this point why we have such a different situation with personal computers and their software. Computers came out of a different, and much more "high-maintenance" culture than consumer electronics. Computers started out as expensive, complex systems, often from multiple vendors, requiring expert help to install and maintain them, and despite the improvements and expansion of the audience, haven't changed that much. Even with Mac users it's not considered unusual to spend hours debugging and fixing problems with one's computer. When consumers turn on a video game console or a phone, however, even though it's just as complex as a computer, they expect it just to work.

Publication and Liability

While the previous section relates somewhat to how people see an "Apple" product, that side of things goes deeper. As we saw above, Apple exerts a lot of editorial control over what software is available for the iPhone, and even if they were not concerned about the quality of individual applications themselves, it would be very difficult to avoid at least ensuring that applications don't interfere with other software on the phone. Let's say someone downloaded an application that turned her iPhone into a "brick," that is to say, broke the entire phone. Apple no doubt believes, and probably correctly, that fixing this problem is going to end up in their lap, and "buy a new iPhone", or even "we'll wipe the entire phone, including your personal data, and give you a fresh software install" is not going to cut it.

Also, because iPhones (and some iPads) are radio devices, Apple has legal obligations about what what they can permit the device to transmit. If a radio device can be easily tweaked to do something like jam other people's phone calls, the FCC and other national communications regulatory authorities hold the manufacturer responsible. Most radio devices these days allow for a great deal of software control, and Apple simply can't avoid taking all reasonable steps to ensure that software to make its radio do bad things doesn't get on to the phone.

(This problem can be mitigated through "sandboxing" applications—but see below.)

So we can see that, for legal and some eminently reasonable marketing reasons, Apple needs to exert a fair amount of monitoring of and control over what software goes on their phone. Unfortunately, even if you don't care what people think about your company, with control comes potential legal and even criminal liability.

Consider: if you rent someone a car, the brakes fail while he's driving it, and he runs over someone, it's quite possible (and most people would feel reasonable) that you will be considered to have contributed to that injury or death. Even just knowledge of a crime can make you a criminal because you become an accessory:

A person with such knowledge [that a crime is being, or will be committed] may become an accessory by helping or encouraging the criminal in some way, or simply by failing to report the crime to proper authority.

The extreme example of such a situation for Apple would be if they received an application called "Child Porn" which actually did contain child porn, and distributed it through the App Store. I don't think anybody doubts that they'd be held at least an accessory to this criminal act. Lesser situations, and civil rather than criminal suits, may be less of a problem, but it's still a problem, and in many situations you simply can't know to what conclusion a judge or jury will come.

Apple certainly cannot be blamed for taking this into consideration.

Sandboxing

I mentioned "sandboxing" above. This is a technique where you run code in a way that limits what it can do and what effect it can have on the hardware and other applications: essentially, letting it play only in the sandbox, and strictly controlling what effects it can have beyond that.

Even under the best of circumstances, this is a difficult technique—no easier, in fact, than keeping every last grain of sand in the sandbox in a playground. (See the Wikipedia entry for more details.) It's no surprise that Apple can't do this for their native applications, which are what we're discussing here.

However, there is another type of application for which they do do this: web applications used through Safari. And you'll note that these are entirely open: iPhone users can access any web content they wish without restriction. I think that this reinforces my point about liability above.

So What to Do?

I think we can see here that Apple's in a bit of a tricky situation here. As Tog said, "Apple has gotten itself trapped in a box, and it's one that will not neatly unlock." But I think it's clear that they're probably not just being unreasonable jerks here: they have some valid business concerns based on what's happened to others in the past, and they've got some powerful external forces reinforcing those.

My original thought on the matter was to make things wide open, but put apps that didn't come from the App Store in a separate area (a "ghetto," essentially) and have users confirm that they really want to use these. However, the lack of sandboxing is a major problem here: until they overcome that technical hurdle, I don't see how they can reasonably allow this.

So I find myself, though through different reasoning, thinking that Tog's proposed solution is the best one:

The simplest way out of this quandry might be for Apple to expand from having an App Store to having an App Mall, anchored by the App Store and flanked by a small number of independent "boutiques." (No, they would't all be for porn. There could be a liberal boutique, a conservative Christian botique, etc., anything not rigidly corporate-mainstream.)

Apple would require these independents to apply the same stringent interface, safety, and legal standards as Apple, monitoring them from time to time only to the extent that, with parental controls turned on, unsuitable material as defined in their "lease" remains inaccessible. However, the independents, within those few, well-defined constraints, could mount whatever products they so chose. Apple could still, as mall landlord, get a cut of every app sold without getting its hands dirty at the same time.

While I wouldn't put it in terms of "parental controls," it makes perfect sense to have a system whereby users (or their parents, if they're young) would have to agree explicitly to certain terms and conditions for access to each of the non-Apple shops, ensuring that they understand what they're getting into when they enable it, and providing legal cover for Apple if they come across something that they don't like. That would also enable Apple to make its shop even more "family friendly," reducing their chances of getting sued, if that's what they're worried about.

Even better for Apple, this would introduce competition into the application approval process. I can't imagine that this is a profit center for Apple, yet it generates an enormous number of complaints and general ill-will from developers. Being able to have a wider range of applications approved, and having more companies working on the approvals process, would almost certainly help the situation. I would not be surprised to see "premium shops" arise that charged developers significant amounts of money for fast, thorough approval: for some developers it would be worth paying more in order to get their applications approved quickly.

Regardless of whether or not Apple picks this particular solution, I think they're going to need to do something. If they don't, now that Android is on the scene, we're likely to see over the next few years whether such strict control really is preferable to a far more open system.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, looking at PlayStation Minis again, it's occurred to me that there's been a sea change in the world that will probably make a big difference, and prevent things like a Great Video Game Crash from happening again.

    It turns out that PlayStation Minis are, in the majority, crap games, just as Atari cartridges were in 1983 and 1984. Reading through the IGN PlayStation Minis Review Roundup, you'll find comments such as:

    It's unfortunate that so many Minis...fall short of even being worth the time it takes to download -- much less the cost to do so -- that we've taken to just assuming everything will be a half-assed idea or a quick and dirty iPhone port.

    But this time it's slightly different: when I hear about a new downloadable game, the first thing I do is get on line and read the reviews. Within moments I can either buy the game or skip it.

    Back in the Atari days I'd have to wait a month or two to be able to buy a magazine to see a review, and most games weren't reviewed anyway, as there simply wasn't space. Shops couldn't get fast feedback and change their stock instantly. In this new purchasing environment, I think it's less likely that people will just give up buying games because it's too hard to find the good ones.

    ReplyDelete