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Enough with the Apple App Store apathy

Open sourcers unite!

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Open...and Shut Microsoft used to be the bête noire of open-source advocates, riling freedom-loving software developers with its sometimes anti-competitive behavior.

But for those open-source evangelists wondering what to do now that open source has gone mainstream, and Microsoft has increasingly embraced the trend, here's a new machine against which to rage: the Mac App Store.

Apple, given its rising share in key markets, is increasingly under US antitrust authorities' microscope for alleged misuse of its iTunes market power and anticompetitive hiring agreements.

But authorities are also paying attention to Apple's grip on developers through its App Store policies. Perhaps they should add the Mac App Store to the list.

As The Reg's Rik Myslewski points out, Apple's new Mac App Store comes with a set of policies that put a significant stranglehold on developers. As Myslewski puts it:

The Mac App Store will shackle developers with the same high level of restrictions that the current iOS store does and will flip the concept of a free software market on its head.

You, the software purchaser, will no longer solely decide which apps will succeed and which will fail. Apple will.

It would be one thing if the Mac App Store were intended to be "just another place" to buy Mac applications, but it's not. Apple intends it to be "the best place," to quote Apple chief executive Steve Jobs.

But the best for whom?

For consumers, maybe, but what if consumers want a Sony Reader app, for example? Well, Apple has apparently determined that it's "best" for consumers not to be bothered with Sony's app, and have blocked it from the App Store.

That's not the Mac App Store, of course, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that Apple can arbitrarily dismiss Mac App Store submissions more out of competitive concerns, not any love for the consumer.

Myslewski points to three sections of the Mac App Store policies, for example, that should be giving developers heartburn: Section 6.4 ("If your user interface is complex or less than very good, it may be rejected"), Section 2.7 ("Apps that duplicate apps already in the App Store may be rejected"), and Section 5.3 ("Apps which appear confusingly similar to an existing Apple product or advertising them will be rejected"). These policies allow Apple to not only be style cop, but competition cop, too.

If this is bringing you flashbacks of another technology company's anti-competitive practices, well, maybe it should. The US Justice Department went after Microsoft back in 1998 for stifling competition related to Internet Explorer, among other things. Microsoft exerted control over developers by requiring changes to boot-up screens and deprecating Netscape's ability to compete in browsers.

This isn't the same as what Apple is doing, and many will argue that Apple is only exerting control over those who elect - of their own free will and choice, mind you! - to distribute software through the Mac App Store. But as Apple's recent run-in with Sony over its eReader app shows, Apple seems to selectively enforce its rules (as in this case, for in-app purchases versus ebook purchases made outside its system).

All of which brings us back to the open-source movement, which has spent years figuring out how to maintain the freedom of software licensing. Let's consider that problem largely solved. Act II? How about ensuring that the way we buy software remains free, too?

How about open store licensing to complement the licensing of the software itself?

Yes, it's too much to expect Apple to care what anyone outside the hallowed halls of Cupertino thinks about its store policies. But I think a few more Sony snafus could lead to people paying real attention to this next phase of software competition.

It may be that it's a short-term problem, as app stores may only be "a temporary stopga[p] to reduce discovery costs," as open-source advocate Carlo Daffara told me. But as James Urquhart, part of Cisco's Office of the chief technology officer, puts it, "giving Steve Jobs a monopoly on ANY means of distribution is detrimental to experimentation, thus markets."

It may be that this whole App Store thing will prove to be a non-issue. Maybe.

Meanwhile, with Google running rampant with Android but not yet nailing the Android Marketplace experience, Apple's free rein over the primary discovery mechanism for apps remains unchecked, and costly (30 per cent of every app sale costly).

So where's the rage, open sourcerers? ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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