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5/6/2010
07:10 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Web 2.0: Curtailing Platform Power

The theme of the Web 2.0 Expo this year was "the power of platforms." There's power in owning a platform, alright. Just look at Apple: With the stroke of a pen, it can revise its developer agreement and disallow the use of Flash and any number of other third-party development tools for creating iPhone apps.

The theme of the Web 2.0 Expo this year was "the power of platforms." There's power in owning a platform, alright. Just look at Apple: With the stroke of a pen, it can revise its developer agreement and disallow the use of Flash and any number of other third-party development tools for creating iPhone apps.Small wonder that HP dropped $1.2 billion to buy Palm. Platform ownership has its privileges.

Platform ownership ought to come with obligations, too. But it doesn't. Any developer seeking to create applications on Apple's platform is at the mercy of Apple. The platform owner's rule is more or less absolute, as long as antitrust and unfair business practice boundaries are not crossed -- and it's pretty rare for the U.S. government makes such cases successfully.

It shouldn't be this way. If a company wishes to control everything about its products, it should be able to do so.

But it should not be allowed to profit from the labors of third-party developers without some basic concessions to fairness, in the same way that a company has labor and wage obligations. It should not profit from network effects without the give-and-take expected in network architecture.

Developers have often been compared to sharecroppers due to their lack of rights. I think it's a fair comparison.

Developers ought to have rights more like renters. Contractual agreements with platform owners should have a term of one or several years and should remain unchangeable without mutual consent during that period. This would recognize that developers make considerable investments to create applications and that such investment should be afforded some protection from arbitrary rule changes.

Imagine being a renter and then being told after moving in that all food preparation could only be done using a landlord-approved spoon. No spatulas, whisks or blenders could be used because they produced food of lesser quality.

That, more or less, is Apple's stance on Flash. Now I can't say I care that much for Flash, but I think it ought to be allowed to succeed or fail in the market on its own merits rather than to have its fate decided by fiat.

To take the food analogy further, imagine the most controversial section 3.3.1 of Apple's revised iPhone 4.0 OS SDK developer agreement written for food developers, otherwise known as chefs:

Apple's Culinary Terms of Service

3.3.1 - Recipes may only use Documented Ingredients in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private Apple-Prescribed Ingredients. Recipes must be originally written in American English, British English, Australian English or L337 as executed by the iPan rendering engine, and only recipes written in American English, British English, and Australian English may be assembled and prepared with Documented Apple-Prescribed Ingredients (e.g., Recipes that call for Documented Apple-Prescribed Ingredients prepared by an intermediary food processing device or tool are prohibited).

Such rules, sadly, won't ensure quality, whether we're talking about food or applications.

Developers' applications, if judged at all, should be judged on technical merits like memory and processor usage and size. They should not be judged by their native language.

Platform owners that reject apps should be able to do so when the content is illegal and for justifiable terms of service violations. But not because they ridicule public figures or take a political stance. Restrictions of that sort belong in countries ruled by totalitarian regimes.

Web 2.0 Expo co-chair and publisher Tim O'Reilly, in his conference keynote, concluded with a plea to platform owners to create more value than they capture. Here's to hoping it may be so.

Black Hat USA 2010 presents a unique opportunity for members of the security industry to gather and discuss the latest in cutting-edge research. It happens July 24-29, in Las Vegas. Find out more and register.

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