Is Apple the new Evil Empire?

Apple has come under a fair amount of scrutiny in recent weeks due to its vetting process for the App Store. The biggest controversy has been Apple’s apparent rejection of the Google Voice app. A number of Web personalities have taken a strong anti-Apple stance due to these practices and what they regard as Apple’s modus operandi, generally. Developers are increasingly frustrated with the pre-approval process both because it can be fairly arbitrary and because Apple exercises a fair degree of control over what makes it into the Store and what doesn’t.

While there is merit to the argument that by exercising this degree of control over what makes it into the Store and what doesn’t, Apple is fulfilling an important quality control function and the end beneficiaries are the consumers. There is a little more to this though. There is little doubt that Apple blocks some apps when they challenge the iPhone’s or iPod Touch’s built in functionality or even its partners’ interests (the Google Voice app debacle is a good example of this with allegations that AT&T influenced Apple’s rejection of the app because of the threat it posed to AT&T’s own business). Much of this level of control has been attributed to Steve Jobs who is reportedly very particular about just about every detail (although he is also reportedly not a big fan of the App Store).

It goes a little beyond the app approval process. I heard a comment that even if apps are approved and sold in the Store, they can be rejected and the developer is on the hook for refunds that may fall due. In fact, as I understand it, the developer is liable for 100% of the refunds even though he doesn’t receive 100% of the revenue from the apps. Apple retains its share of the sale throughout.

Another issue which has been raised is Steve Jobs’ hypocrisy. He famously wrote an open letter to the music industry a while back urging them to abandon DRM and to allow Apple to sell DRM-free music to its customers who so desperately wanted it. It certainly portrayed Jobs as the advocate for the masses although the iTunes ecosystem remains tightly controlled and closed. Palm has managed to break through that firewall and its Pre has been able to connect to iTunes as if it were an iPod (well, intermittently).

As Simon Dingle pointed out to me earlier today, “open doesn’t mean benevolent“. That may be true but transparency is more conducive to some form of accountability and, with that, potential benevolence, than opacity. Apple is a pretty closed book and it is famous for spreading disinformation ahead of product releases both to retain the element of surprise and to sniff out leaks in the company. This has been almost endearing in the past and part of the fun of finding out what Apple has up its sleeve but it also highlights a darker side to Apple. Granted it makes fantastic products (I will have a Mac computer as long as I can afford it given the current state of Apple’s tech and its trends) but what is the cost?

I commented to Simon earlier that Google has been more open and permissive when it comes to 3rd party services and plugins (a number of its recent initiatives are being open sourced). Simon’s view is that both companies have similar intentions. He almost certainly knows more than I do about what both companies are up to but from my vantage point I would sooner trust Google than Apple despite having concerns about the level of access Google has to virtually all my data. In my mind openness is more conducive to better behaviour because of the level of scrutiny and the constant emergence of alternatives. Apple has not exactly maintained a pristine record and while it is probably a little too early to paint Apple with the same brush, I have already read comments that Apple is becoming the new Microsoft (while there are many good people working at Microsoft, the software giant has been involved in some very underhanded stuff in recent years, using its dominance to exercise undue influence where it should be exercised).

So is Apple the new Evil Empire? We’ll have to see but as Leo Laporte pointed out, in Mussolini’s Italy the trains still ran on time.

Photo credit: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates by Joi Ito, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0license

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