When comparisons go wrong

ORIGINALLY POSTED FEBRUARY 13, 2010

I was reading a post over at The Register today talking about Opera Mini on the iPhone.  One of the talkbacks made a comparison between Apple’s App Store and a real store.

They said (essentially) that if you own a brick-and-mortar store you can choose to sell any merchandise you want and reject any you don’t want to sell.  You can do this for any reason, no matter how stupid to everyone else, and it’s acceptable.  They went on to say, by extension, Apple should have the same right and that’s why it would be OK for them to reject Opera Mini (if they do… apparently Opera hasn’t submitted it yet, or at least hasn’t heard an answer yet).  That’s why it is OK for them to reject any application for any reason and nobody should complain about it.

The person is, of course, correct about a store in the physical world.  It is well within the rights of the owner to sell or not sell whatever they want.  Shouldn’t the same right extend to Apple and their store?  Surely the fact that it’s not a physical store doesn’t make a difference, does it?

No, it doesn’t make a difference, and on the surface, it seems like a perfectly reasonable, correct comparison.

The problem is, it’s not.

I’m reminded of the words of Jean Luc Picard from one of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes “The First Duty”… while talking to Wesley he says “You told the truth up to a point.  But a lie of omission is still a lie”.

Now, the talkbacker wasn’t being dishonest.  No, he simply made a mistake in his argument, but one based on the same principle: you can make something false appear true simply by omitting a troublesome detail from the argument.

What’s the flaw you ask?  Simply put, there are other stores in the physical world that you could go to in order to buy something the first store doesn’t offer.  That’s how it’s meant to work.  Walmart doesn’t have the DVD player you want so you head over to Target for it.  You may be annoyed at Walmart for not carrying it, but you can’t claim they did anything wrong by not carrying it.  That would clearly be a ridiculous argument.

In the case of Apple, there is no other store to choose from.  You buy from Apple’s store or you hack your device and run afoul of crappy legislation (I’m looking at you DMCA… and by the way, if we ever meet up at a party I’m gonna bitch-slap your punk ass!)  No other store means that Apple is an absolute gatekeeper to anyone wanting to sell merchandise (read: apps_.  No such gatekeeper exists in the real world.  Sure, you may not be able to find anyone who wants to sell your product in their store, but you have many options to try, not just one with an absolute final say in all matters.

To go further, I’ll say what some won’t: Apple does have a monopoly (which in and of itself is not a legal or even moral problem) and they are in fact abusing it (which very much is both a legal and moral problem).  In my opinion, they should be brought up on antitrust charges.  There’s certainly no shortage of people that would testify about abuses they have experienced.

What about the competition?  Well, Palm lets you install apps from outside their store, officially now in fact (and even before it was official they were at worst agnostic).  Microsoft of all companies, in light of their legally-proven monopoly abuses of the past, has always allowed this with Windows Mobile and unless they intend to change that now with their new app store, will continue to do so.  I’m frankly not sure where Android or Blackberry stand on things.

I do know that only Apple has seemed to be abusive about it if you go by nothing else but public outcry… well, maybe “public” isn’t the right word there… developer outcry perhaps.  Certainly, the public doesn’t seem to mind very much, they are quite happy with their iPhones and the app store.

And therein lies the rub, as they say.  I can sit here and, as I see it, be right about all of this, but at the same time still be wrong!  If the public at large doesn’t have an issue with it, does it matter if it’s wrong legally?  After all, things are only illegal or wrong because society at large has deemed them so, and as public opinion changes so too do laws (we’re likely to see marijuana legalized in our lifetime for example).  Even taking the legal aspect out of the debate, iPhone owners are, by and large, very happy customers.  They don’t care if Apple rejects some apps for dubious reasons.  If they did, the sales numbers wouldn’t be what they are both in terms of phones and apps.

But in any case, I don’t think the comparison to real-world stores is valid.  Until there is another store someone can buy an iPhone app from, or Apple decides to allow “sideband” installs without jailbreaking… neither of which is likely to happen before marijuana is legalized!… it’s just not a valid comparison in my opinion, and because of it, to me, Apple is illegally abusing a monopoly position and should be prosecuted for it.

I’m not a lawyer of course, but that’s the way I see it.

(and yes, I’m pretty sure this means you won’t see me writing a book on iPhone programming anytime soon!!)

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