It's time to end government-funded iPhone apps (and curb Apple's control-freak tendencies)

There was enough flaming to grill a steak after I suggested that Apple gets away with things that Microsoft could never do. A lot of the complaints were about the specifics of the Apple vs. Palm iTunes turf-war, with commenters correctly noting that Palm did not follow approved Apple sync guidelines (in effect, Apple left a hole in its code, Palm took advantage of it by having its device "pretend" to be another, and then Apple closed the hole). My point was that if Microsoft openly sought similar strict control over how, say, software interacted with its Office suite, the complaining would be far more intense.

Well.

Now we've got Apple's Developer License Agreement with terms so controlling that developers must seek prior approval from Apple before even commenting on the license itself. We only know this because the Electronic Frontier Foundation snared a copy from NASA via a Freedom of Information Act request (view PDF on the EFF site. Apparently, federal law still trumps Apple's corporate attempts at secrecy. At least for now.

I've never been comfortable with government-sponsored applications on the iPhone, but this is the last straw. Should taxpayer money really be supporting development on a platform where parties can't even talk about the relationship between a government entity and its technology partner? What is this, the spy satellite program?

Yes, I'm all in favor of a) open government and b) leveraging technology to improve access to government. And yes, iPhone apps can help a select group of citizens better communicate with their government.

My problem comes with that "select group of citizens" part. Because all these iPhone apps help Apple as much as the citizenry by giving the iPhone a volume of applications that its rivals don't have; and I'm not happy with the way Apple is throwing its market-share weight around.

There's quite a bit of difference between developing a government Web application, open to pretty much everyone, and a taxpayer-funded mobile app that endorses one tightly closed platform over others (most of which are more open). The government mobile app requires people to pay monthly fees to a specific company for access. Is that really open government?

A Web app lets anyone with an Internet connection use it. Yes, an Internet connection requires monthly payment to someone, but the creation of that application doesn't guarantee revenue to one and only one company (or in this case, two -- Apple and AT&T) in order to use it.

And those without Internet access can often at least head to a local library for use. An iPhone app? Not so much.

Yes, with Web apps there are risks that, say, only one browser will be supported. But last I looked, nobody has to pay Microsoft a monthly fee in order to use Internet Explorer. Nor did Microsoft exert total control over what Web sites may run in IE, the way Apple controls access to its iPhone app store. (The agreement does allow developers to distribute their apps within their organization, but the license says they must then be willing to "cooperate with Apple and to answer questions and provide information about Your Application." )

In Boston, iPhone owners can easily report problems to the city government -- more easily than anyone else, including those with other mobile devices. But should government money really be used to create applications that are only available to those willing to buy an iPhone and pay a monthly fee to AT&T? Should taxpayer money help decide the winner in the current battle between smartphone platforms? Especially when Apple reserves the right to revoke application distribution at any time simply if they determine that there has been a violation of "any term or condition" of the license? Thus potentially sending hours of government development work down the drain?

It's a big red warning flag that a private company wants to bar a government entity from even talking about their relationship, in an arena that doesn't involve national security.

Hey, Apple: As a taxpayer and owner of a competing smartphone, I've got every right to know exactly how my money is being used to benefit the owners of your device. And as a citizen, I'd add that public money shouldn't be used to help any one company tighten its grip on the smartphone market.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000 or subscribe to her RSS feeds:
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