Apple is a fascinating company. Ever since Steve Jobs returned as the company’s leader, Apple has shown that like no other they can get millions excited about new technology. They successfully branched out from selling computers to selling music players and phones. In 2010, they came out with a tablet computer. After people forgot that the iPad reminded them of sanitary napkins, it turned out to be a successful product despite Microsoft’s numerous attempts to make tablet PCs a thing.
But all this success gave Apple increasing power over software developers, people’s privacy and even their competitors. Are there reasons to be concerned?
Apple has filed a patent to kill jailbroken iPhones
Last week a patent application was published where Apple details methods to detect when someone is hacking into your device by snapping pictures, making recordings, analyzing heartbeats and “noting particular activities that can indicate suspicious behavior”. When unauthorized use has been detected, several actions can be taken including going as far as to brick the device.
As long as it’s an opt-in feature, I don’t see any reason to be concerned. In fact, the enterprise world and government organizations would welcome such features.
But here’s the catch. The patent application doesn’t merely cover hacking. It also suggests using the aforementioned techniques to kill jailbroken devices. And yet, a month ago a ruling from the Copyright Office legalized jailbreaking although it will void your warranty.
The verdict: should the jailbreakers among us get be nervous? Yes, but we have to put this into perspective. The patent application was filed way back in February 2009, at a time when the Copyright Office hadn’t declared jailbreaking legal yet. It’s possible that Apple changed their mind because of the ruling. But if they start enforcing this, legal battles and protests will ensue… and Apple’s newly added layer of security will get hacked two days later.
Apple collects your current location and interests to serve you targeted ads
When Apple launched the iAd advertising network in July 2010, the company started using location data from their iOS and OS X users to enable location-based advertising. Responding to a query from two concerned Congressmen, Apple put things into perspective.
The iAd network will collect your ZIP code to serve up location-based ads. This is done when an ad is requested. In the case of the iPhone, this will be when you open an iAd-supported app. Latitude and longitude will not be saved or associated with you. The iAd server will associate the ZIP code with your device’s ID to serve you ads based on your location. Location data about individual users will not be shared with advertisers. You can opt out of location-based advertising only by disabling location services entirely in your system settings.
Secondly, iAd may serve ads based on your interests. You can opt out of this on a per-device basis. To do this, go to https://oo.apple.com/ on the device.
The verdict: while iAd’s practices are wide-spread across established ad networks (including limited location-based advertising based on your IP address), iAd could be considered sneaky since it is integrated into iOS, it doesn’t have to ask permission to use your location. Opting out of interest-based advertising is relatively easy, but to opt out of location-based advertising you have to give up location services altogether.
Apple keeps tight control over its App Store and engages in anti-competitive behavior
Developing for iOS can be stressful. Even if you manage to get the money together to start an app development business and manage to write an app that has huge potential, Apple has the final decision over your fate. The company can refuse your app or even remove it from the App Store whenever it wants. To be fair, Apple has tried to make the decision process more transparent. But they have at several occasions faced accusations of maintaining double standard when they rejected some apps, some of which were later approved. Still, whether their review process is fair or not, isn’t it a little ironic that the App Store’s director sells his own fart apps?
There is an argument to be made that justifies Apple’s right to do with the App Store whatever they want. But this has lead to monopolistic behavior at times. When Google tried to release Google Voice for the iPhone, the app was rejected. There’s no denying the conflict of interest: iPhone carrier AT&T is not keen on letting you send free texts and making cheap international calls through Google over AT&T’s data network. An FCC inquiry followed.
Here’s another example of anti-competitive behavior: when iOS 4 was announced, Apple changed their Terms of Service to ban rivaling ad networks from gathering crucial analytic data, such as the number of ad clicks. This could bar app developers from partnering with iAd competitors such as AdMob, a Google-owned company. According to AdMob CEO Omar Hamoui, “advertisers won’t buy ads when they can’t even tell how many people had clicked on that ad”, which seems fair. Apple hasn’t enforced this new rule, but if they will regulators are likely to respond.
The verdict: Apple’s apparent unwillingness to tolerate competition in their own App Store is worrisome. Apple’s inconsistency in their App Store approval process is bad for developers – especially the small independent ones – although they have taken steps to eliminate any double standards.