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Should software developers fear Facebook, Apple?

Harvard law professor says that controlling third-party platforms may put companies in a gate-keeping position that could stifle innovation.

It's hard to think of Apple and Facebook as obstructions to innovation and the free flow of information, but that's exactly what the companies could become one day, according to Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and a proponent of free speech on the Web.

Apple and Facebook have generated lots of consumer satisfaction by each creating environments where third-party developers can tailor software for the iPhone or Facebook's social network. Part of their success is due to the quality control the companies maintain over the applications running on their platforms, Zittrain said. But he also worries that Apple and Facebook--as well as other companies that might be tempted to follow their lead--will begin to exert more control over independent software development than ever before. He's skeptical this would be good for anyone.

Harvard professor is skeptical that platforms similar to those built around Apple's iPhone and Facebook provide the best environment for developing software. Jonathan Zittrain

In an interview with CNET News.com last week, Zittrain said his fears were stoked recently when Apple and Facebook each made news for booting software apps off their platforms.

Last week, Apple banned the bloody electronic comic, Murderdrome. The comic's creators wrote on their blog: "This is due to the part of the SDK that suggests content must not offend anyone in 'Apple's reasonable' opinion.'" Some of the other apps axed by Apple include Box Office, which provides movie information; Tris, a Tetris-like game app and PhoneSaber, a feature that simulates the light-saber sounds from the film Star Wars.

Last month, Facebook disabled Scrabulous, the digital game that looks a lot like the popular board game Scrabble in numerous countries around the world including the United States. Mattel and Hasbro, which share ownership of Scrabble, pressured Facebook to remove Scrabulous, citing copyright concerns. To sidestep the copyright issue, the brothers who created Scrabulous modified the game's look feel and relaunched it in North America as Wordscraper.

"What I object to is that these companies have put themselves into a position where they can be bullied into making decisions that leads to taking stuff down," Zittrain said. "It's becoming commonplace that code is either prevented from reaching an audience, or once it reaches an audience it can be yanked back because of the architecture."

Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society who calls himself a "happy Facebook and iPhone user," said he doesn't believe that Apple or Facebook created the platforms with the intention of asserting heavy-handed control over software development. He suspects that they control their platforms the way they do for sound business reasons.

But Zittrain warns in his book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, that anyone who creates these controlled environments is vulnerable to pressure from outside parties. Some requests to remove an app will be made for legitimate reasons while others may be made to gain a competitive edge, according to Zittrain.

"You can see where outsiders might want to force (Apple and Facebook's) hand for business reasons," Zittrain said. "The last thing Apple and Facebook want is to be embroiled in court fights for some app that hasn't taken off yet with a big audience. So it's rational for the platform owner (to remove the app), but it's not good for the ecosystem."

As supreme rulers over their platforms, Apple and Facebook hold unchecked power over what apps live or die. This harms consumers, entrepreneurs and the Internet by making it harder for disruptive software to survive. Often such controversial applications turn out to benefit software, Zittrain argued.

Would Kazaa or Skype have flourished in a platform similar to Apple's, asks Zittrain? Or would the music and telephone companies have forced Apple to ban them by threatening legal action?

Zittrain reminds anyone who will listen that all of the major operating systems of the 20th century; Windows, Linux, and the Mac OS, never sought to impede third-party applications written for them. "Nobody ever asked Bill Gates to kill BitTorrent," Zittrain said.

Apple may need to follow Facebook's lead
Apple declined to comment for this story, but Facebook defended its procedures for removing applications.

Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer at Facebook, said Tuesday that the social network has established a set of rules and standards for developers designed to protect consumers. "The idea that there are some rules at the margins I don't think significantly hinders the ability to be generative," Kelly said.

Would Kazaa or Skype have survived a platform similar to Apple's? Or would the music and telephone companies have forced Apple to ban them?

To protect developers accused of breaking rules, Facebook has a system to listen to their side of the story. A "platform team" assesses rules violations and makes a determination, Kelly said, adding that Facebook also has an appeal's process.

It's important to note, however, that the people who hear the appeals are not independent parties but Facebook employees. Still, this is more than what Apple currently offers. At this early stage in the iPhone platform's development, it appears Apple is without any formal process to allow developers whose apps are removed a chance to challenge the decision.

"Apple will remove your app without telling you why they're doing it," said Cyrus Najmabadi, a software developer whose application, Box Office, was taken down in July for over a week without warning. He brought it back under a new name, Now Playing. "This is frightening, given the traditional open nature of the computing market. Apple needs a notification system and to be more transparent."

Najmabadi said he couldn't detail why the app was banned, citing the non disclosure agreement Apple makes third-party developers sign.

One important question is why, if Najmabadi is unhappy, doesn't he develop elsewhere? The reality is that iPhone and Facebook's platforms have become enormously influential and potentially lucrative for developers, Zittrain maintains. Walking away isn't easy, Najmabadi said.

The more successful the platform, the more control they can assert over developers, said Colin Sebastian, a video game analyst with Lazard Capital Markets.

Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo operate walled-garden environments in the videogame sector, Sebastian said, but developers haven't complained much about the console makers throwing their weight around. That's due to the intense competition in the sector, which prevents the companies from issuing too many demands on developers. "I suspect that could change if any one of them ever became the dominate player," Sebastian said.

In the case of Apple and Facebook, Zittrain wants to see developers band together to pressure those companies to provide guarantees. He would also like to see platform creators get some protection under the law.

"There's plenty of people who argue to let the market solve the problem," Zittrain said. "That's fine. It's not like I'm racing to have the UN to send in the helicopters. The market will sort it out once they know the problem. They just have to know. I've been trying to bang the drum and rally the nation's developer communities because I think the platforms aren't yet fully dug in. So you could actually see flexibility."