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The first rule of iPhone Club is...

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In the 1999 movie Fight Club, Brad Pitt famously tells a huddle of pugilistic aspirants: "The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club."

Apple's iPhone Developer Program License Agreement phrases that sentiment differently, but its directive to iPhone developers is essentially the same:

You may not issue any press releases or make any other public statements regarding this Agreement, its terms and conditions, or the relationship of the parties without Apple's express prior written approval, which may be withheld at Apple's discretion.

This nugget was finally uncovered by the digital-freedom crusaders at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who obtained a copy (pdf) of the Agreement by invoking the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) after the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration signed on as an iPhone developer.

What's in the Agreement that Apple doesn't want you to know? The EFF's report has a few suggestions, including the fact that Apple can reject an app for any reason, even if it meets all the Agreement's requirements.

There's also the stipulation that prohibits any kind of reverse engineering of the SDK or iPhone OS, including what the EFF claims are "the kinds of reverse engineering for interoperability that courts have recognized as a fair use under copyright law".

Then there's the edict that a dev cannot "disable, hack, or otherwise interfere with" not just the iPhone OS and SDK, but also "any services or other Apple software or technology" - which precludes, as the EFF points out, efforts to enable Apple devices to interoperate with open source software.

But wait, there's more. In the Agreement's "Limitation of Liability" section, Apple states that it can never be held liable for damages - other than those involving personal injury - that "exceed the amount of fifty dollars". In other words, if the App Store police decide to axe your app for any reason, all damages resulting from your loss of development, marketing, and other expenses can't amount to more than what the EFF calls "the cost of a nice dinner for one in Cupertino".

It's no news that the iPhone, the iPod touch, and the forthcoming iPad are closed systems. Reading the Agreement, however, reveals just how closed those systems are, and just how committed how Apple is to reversing decades of developers' abilities to publish and market apps as they see fit - not to mention the user's right to load whatever software they want onto devices they have purchased.

And even this unprecedented degree of control isn't enough for Apple. As we reported a year ago, Apple has told the US Copyright Office that jailbreaking an iPhone should be illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). According to Apple, the EFF's petition that jailbreaking should be exempt from the DMCA is "an attack on Apple's particular business choices with respect to the design of the iPhone mobile computing platform and the strategy for delivering applications software for the iPhone through the iPhone App Store".

As we've pointed out before, Apple isn't alone in its effort to make the 2010s what we've called "the out of control decade," But its certainly leading the charge, as the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement makes abundantly clear.

The runaway popularity of the iPhone and the promise of an equally game-changing iPad provide Apple with the muscle it needs to exert draconian control over developers. If you want to get aboard Apple's gravy train, you have no option other than to agree to the Agreement - and even if you follow Apple's directives to the letter, Apple may, in the words of the Agreement, "reject Your Application for distribution for any reason, even if Your Application meets the Documentation and Program Requirements".

Just ask the devs whose previously approved apps have recently been yanked from the App Store for purported "overtly sexual content (including bikinis), WiFi-finding capabilities, Apple-determined "minimal user functionality" and more.

The reasoning behind Apple's seeming arbitrariness and demonstrable capriciousness was explained over 30 years ago by comedienne Lily Tomlin when she lampooned "the Phone Company" with a mocking summary of their attitude to customer service: "We don't care. We don't have to."

But such hubris can catch up with a company, especially in the fast-moving digital domain. The gutters of the information superhighway are littered with companies that once ruled the roost but are now either also-rans or mere memories - think Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, Compaq, IBM's Personal Computer division and a host of others.

Apple is riding high right now, but what one wise guy wrote a few thousand years ago in Proverbs 16:18 might well be discussed at the next Cupertinian board meeting: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." ®

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