News Column

Innovation Worries Arise as Tech Giants Tighten Controls

Nov. 20, 2012

David Streitfeld


Several big companies -- Apple, Amazon and Google -- are pursuing a "walled garden" approach, where they hope to do so much for their customers that they will never leave.

Apple did not invent the notion of using cellphones to play games and carry out small tasks, but it certainly made the concept its own. Its app store is the one all developers want to get into, despite the much larger market share claimed by Google's Android. There are so many competing devices using Android that developers say they have a hard time getting the most out of their apps for that system. Besides, customers are used to spending money for Apple apps, but they tend to want Android apps to be free.

All this gives Apple power far beyond its operating system's 20 percent share of the mobile market. At some point, however, that power might be detrimental for the Internet as a whole.

Several big companies -- Apple, and Google -- are pursuing a "walled garden" approach, in which they hope to do so much for their customers that the customers will never leave.

Internet policy experts did not like walled gardens when America Online built one in the 1990s, and they do not like the prospect of another one triumphing now.

A private universe, they suggest, will ultimately prove a dead end for innovation and possibly for technology sector jobs as well.

"If someone else controls the distribution of your work and the pricing, then you don't have a company, you have an affiliate," said Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library.

If the goal is a diverse and truly free market for all technology entrepreneurs, "you won't get there from here," he added. "But if you want it to be a mall, we're well on the way."

As with most mall owners, Apple screens out those businesses it judges unworthy or inappropriate. Perhaps it is not surprising that a 2010 app from Tawkon, an Israeli start-up, did not make the grade; it estimated the amount of radiation the iPhone was emitting.

"No interest," Steven P. Jobs, Apple's chief executive, e-mailed Tawkon, according to the company. An Android version of the app has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and gets generally good reviews.

"We believe that Steve Jobs didn't want to associate the iPhone with anything that could have a potential health risk," a Tawkon co- founder, Gil Friedlander, wrote in an e-mail. "That said, Tawkon, as our name infers ('talk-on'), was always a great advocate of mobile phones while empowering users (adults & kids) to use them responsibly."

Another startup, Fandor, a subscription service for independent films, had a different sort of problem. Fandor's app has been downloaded more than 100,000 times from Apple. Naturally, it wants to market to these fans directly. But when members subscribe to the service through Apple, it cannot. Apple considers the e-mail addresses its property.

"The more Apple can control, the more it will control," said Dan Aronson, Fandor's chief executive."It's nice to be king."

Apple declined to comment on Tawkon or Fandor, but in general it has maintained that tight control is essential for ensuring the quality of customers' experiences. The company screens out potentially buggy or completely ridiculous apps, for example. And Apple says the vast majority of apps -- more than 95 percent -- are accepted on the first submission.

Mr. Kahle is not reassured. "Apple is creating a feeder system where they get to learn everyone else's business model and then get to compete with them."

Source: (C) 2012 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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