Rent-seeker's Advocate

When Apple announced the upcoming App Store Small Business Program, under which some business will have to give up 15% of their app's price to Apple instead of 30%, I posted something brash in response to it. It contained humorous allegations that Apple was acting like organized crime towards those so successful as to escape the bounds of the program, had it existed at the time they did so. (Realistically, the imputed partner would have exceeded the volume within days, if not hours.)

I still maintain that within the context of the joke, and knowing the background, it's more right than it is wrong, but that's not to say that people at Apple working with marketing or the App Store or developing the underlying infrastructure go to work with the intent to do harm, repress creativity or spoil livelihoods. I regret any discomfort that I have caused in those people, especially when there are both individuals and organizations that are explicitly hell-bent on exploitation. But that said, what are we to do when that's what the end-result nevertheless is?

Seen from one perspective, Apple heard the feedback from developers and launched the program with clear and pure intent to build a better relationship with them. Seen from almost every other perspective, it is one in a series of ploys intended to protect, tooth and nail, a monopoly from being taken from them – a monopoly which ostensibly provides a marketplace for the enjoyment of developers and users, but which consistently serves themselves above any other party. Apple is as sincere in its determination going to war against anyone who would change that as its previous "thermonuclear war" against Android being "a stolen product".

In the subject of accessibility, I have heard of a scale of "situational, temporary, permanent". Making colors contrast enough or text sizes bigger, for example, helps the people with vision problems, but it also helps those who are trying to work an outdoor touch screen with fogged glasses from mask-wearing, those whose medical issues may flare up and ruin their vision temporarily or those who have misplaced their reading glasses. By improving an aspect of software for some, you also end up improving that aspect of it for many others. Or in other words: actions have consequences, and it's hard to wall them off.

Apple's desire for control is intended to stem some permanent behaviors seen as unseemly, like pornography, gambling or ethically murky business propositions. But the net cast by those controls also end up catching the situational and the temporary. Do you want to release an application under a pen name? No, fat chance, you must have something to hide, go live your life on Android instead. Do you want to use a behavior or technique that, in the wrong hands, could be abused? Nuh-uh. Do you want to just plain not be subservient to the consequences of these rules and the capriciousness emergent in their application; or disagree with their definition of what is unseemly or not because you are not the lowest common denominator by which the rules are applied? Build your own damn platform.

Jamie Zawinski has long posted a message to Facebook employees to the effect that being at Facebook is being complicit in the consequences of the platform. While I wouldn't go so far, as I tried to disengage from Google (the search engine itself), I ended up using DuckDuckGo, which although a privacy conscious provider, also enlists the floundering search engine from Microsoft, which is also one of the companies trading blows for the world's highest market cap, which helps itself to various and sundry data from every Windows 10 user (and shows them Start menu advertisements even if you paid hundreds of dollars for an operating system license). This is Alice in Wonderland.

In short, it is becoming incredibly hard to not surrender some part of your life to five-to-ten technology companies. So, no, maybe going by a particular letter interpretation of a particular definition of a particular law, what Apple has is not a monopoly. But by any sane way of looking at the status quo, it's not a healthy, customer-serving market either. Apple is acting the way they do because they get away with it, and mix semi-serious fealty to community-minded activities and values with bog standard profit-maximizing-at-all-costs tax planning and only caring about their own house and their own situation.

The pragmatic way to go for Apple, if it still believes it can keep this house of cards standing, might be to allow App Stores themselves into the App Store. For example: get Steam, and you can download any game or app from Steam that Valve has their own approval process for, which may include games not otherwise allowed by the App Store, and neither Steam nor the Steam-sourced apps would have to use Apple's In-App Purchase platform. It would also presumably be heavily policed to ensure that it wasn't letting misleading, dangerous or fraudulent apps through – an idea so good, it is second only to the idea that the App Store itself might competently enforce those policies on the App Store's own listings. But speaking of that, this would also open for a pet theory of mine, that with other app stores allowed and available, the Apple App Store itself could be free to truly only allow the apps matching a higher standard.

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