Developer Rights Now - InformationWeek

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2/23/2011
08:00 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Developer Rights Now

Platform owners shouldn't be allowed to treat developers like serfs.

If you launch a business in a commercial district, your landlord cannot tell you which credit card processor to use or what merchandise to sell. Your landlord cannot raise your rent arbitrarily.

If you launch a business on a commercial platform, your landlord faces no such constraints. I'll use Apple as an example but this argument could apply to other platform owners like Google or Twitter, where restrictive contractual requirements or owner-oriented favoritism come into play.

Tenants, you see, have some rights; iOS developers have far fewer rights. As developer Mark Pilgrim observed in 2007, prior to joining Google, developers working on Apple's platform are like sharecroppers. It's not a precise simile -- developers don't sell their apps back to Apple in an attempt to erase a debt to the company -- but it adequately represents the one-sided nature of the contractual relationship between Apple and its developers.

There are plenty of people who believe this situation is fine, that the market must be left unencumbered by regulation. Chances are they're not developers.

And while there's merit to the argument that markets function better with fewer rules, that position conveniently ignores the market distorting dynamics of rules mandated by platform owners. If we're going to go to bat for laissez-faire capitalism, let's not favor private sector rules over public sector ones.

Some rules are necessary and those rules should be few and fair, rules that do not distort the market or predetermine winners.

When the government imposes rules, every business faces a potential compliance cost. When a platform owner imposes rules, every business operating on the platform other than the the platform owner faces a potential compliance cost.

One might argue that Apple, as the creator of the iOS platform, deserves to dictate the rules. Ownership has its privileges and all that. But I believe that Apple must cede some of its ownership rights as the price for opening its platform up to third-parties, just as a landlord loses some ownership rights by offering a property for rent.

The notion that Apple should be left to set the rules for its platform, that the market will remedy the situation if Apple's rules are bad, doesn't adequately address the investment in time and resources made by developers. It allows developer investments to be sacrificed for the sake of a natural market correction.

It does not address the equity that developers create by supporting a platform. If Apple wants to own its platform absolutely, it should not allow anyone to write software for it. If it opens its platform, the price should be some loss of control.

We have rules to protect tenants because history shows that tenants need some protection from property owners. Developers need protection from platform owners. Not a lot, but more than the status quo, which is next to nothing.

Developers helped build the iOS platform, contributing over 350,000 apps. For that contribution and for the sake of fairness, they should be granted a few minimal protections. Whether these protections would be enforced through an industry body or a government one is beyond the scope of this argument.

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