For what seems like forever, people have complained about vendor lock-in. This is normally talked about with regards to major system software like an RDBMS, but it extends to various other packages as well. We are now seeing lock-in cause problems in other arenas as well, specifically in the mobile industry. The interesting thing is that we are seeing both vendor and platform lock-in at the same time.
Mobile phone hardware has had a long history of being locked to a particular vendor. RIM has always sold different carriers different BlackBerry models. This allows each carrier to feel special in their own little way. However, regardless of your carrier, you were likely able to get some version of a current BlackBerry. With Apple‘s iPhone, we are seeing a new level of lock-in. They had an exclusive agreement with AT&T for several years. The agreement obviously included any new models of iPhone after the original, as we saw the iPhone 3G and 3GS models stay with just AT&T. Normally, this type of agreement gives a carrier a major boost of revenue and a general reputation increase. AT&T definitely saw the increase in revenue, but as Louis Gray has pointed out, the reputation has actually taken a beating:
The recent flare-up of seething and complaining about the quality of AT&T, and the gnashing of teeth for Apple to shed itself of its telecom overlord partner handcuffs is only the latest example of business development contracts and exclusive rights being offered at the harm of customer choice.
Apple has also lost the opportunity for a larger revenue stream by not being able to partner with other major carriers like Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. These types of exclusive agreements are a double-edged sword, and Apple has definitely seen both sides in this situation due to AT&T’s reputation.
However, Apple is not free of blame in the lock-in sweepstakes. They have had issues with their iPhone applications. First, there are the various policies regarding OS X and the iPhone SDK only running on Apple hardware. Many people ignore these policies, and even Apple has been lenient in enforcing it. They have not been lenient with regards to what applications they approve for inclusion in the App Store. In fact, they have been heavily criticized for their delays and inconsistent approvals.
Recently we heard that Apple had issues with Google Voice applications:
Earlier today we learned that Apple had begun to pull all Google Voice-enabled applications from the App Store, citing the fact that they “duplicate features that come with the iPhone”. Now comes even worse news: we’ve learned that Apple has blocked Google’s official Google Voice application itself from the App Store.
We have since heard that it could be AT&T behind this particular issue, but Apple has rejected applications for the same reasons. If an application provides “duplicate” features or functionality that comes with a standard iPhone application, it will be rejected. This is regardless of whether the applications is better than what Apple has provided. This type of policy could also extend to an application that provides the same functionality, but presents information in a novel manner. For example, what if Delicious did not exist yet, and you have bookmarks that you have saved in Safari. Apple could reject a new Delicious iPhone application because it provides duplicate features as Safari, even though Delicious is really something completely different.
This is the main problem with one vendor controlling a major development platform. They can basically rule with an iron fist if they choose to. They can also enforce policies in whatever manner they want, because there is nobody that can manage them.
Is there a way to solve this problem? Part of this could be solved by Apple making agreements with other carriers like Verizon or Sprint. The iPhone app store problem is much harder because the phone itself is “locked” so that it is difficult to just install any application you would like. If the iPhone was sold as an “unlocked” device, then a third party app store could be created that contained digg-style voting or reviews in order to determine what applications users preferred. There are issues with this type of third party store as well, but they may be easier to deal with than the way Apple controls their platform.