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Apple iPhone Apps Store: Refreshing Openness or Walled Garden?

Apple Computer has received high praise for the diversity of applications available for the iPhone. The company shows great willingness to accept third party software innovations. But Apple also solely decides whether to accept and make available any application. Rejected software vendors for the most part do not exist if they do not have shelf space at the Apple store. The possibility exists that iPhone users can download and install non-Apple endorsed software, but more likely Apple could reject any third party application when users download next generation Apple operating system software.

Apple serves as a bellwether for openness and innovation even as it appears to treats users’ screens as Apple property for a “walled garden” of its choosing. Consider this scenario: Apple cuts an exclusive deal with Exxon-Mobil for a GPS-based locator for nearby Exxon-Mobile gas stations. A new startup venture Cheapgas, Inc. has devised a GPS-based locators for all nearby gas stations, coupled with user reports on the per gallon rates for most of the listed stations. Exxon-Mobile invokes the exclusivity clause in its contract with Apple forcing Apple to reject the Cheapgas proposal for inclusion in the iPhone Apps Store. Cheapgas may try to find ways for iPhone owners to download the software, but even if this alternative is possible, far fewer downloads likely will result as users do not risk “bricking” their phone, or they simply take the path of least resistance and stick with the easy app download process offered by Apple.

Does Apple’s walled garden strategy violate a fair-minded concept of network neutrality? Does Apple rightly control what can appear on iPhone screens? Do exclusivity contracts, like that negotiated between DirecTV and Dish Network satellite operators, promote diversity and innovation?

By Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair and Professor of Telecommunications and Law

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