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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

So-called "Platform Neutrality": nothing to do with Net Neutrality, and a minefield of unintended consequences

One of the things I've noticed cropping up over the last year has been the concept of "platform neutrality". It's a line of argument used by telecom lobbyists and executives to shed light on perceived unfairness stemming from Apple and Google's control of their respective ecosystems (and, to a degree, Microsoft and Amazon and others).

It seems innocuous at first - I've seen it defined as "consumers should be free to procure and use legal apps and contents on any platform from any source".

In other words, the telecoms industry doesn't like the control that Apple has over its AppStore and iTunes and similar platforms, nor Google over the Play Store and other properties. Some of this is fairly reasonable - Apple has some rather arcane, non-transparent and inconsistent policies about apps it allows in its store, while Google could be accused of manipulating its search results in ways to maximise revenues. There are also persistent rumours that only favoured developers get access to "private APIs" as well.

It's not obvious to me, however, that such practices warrant either huge regulatory intervention, nor conflation with the more prominent concerns about Net Neutrality. There might be some unfairness - perhaps even questions over competition - but they are both entirely separate from, and of a different magnitude to, various network practices that telcos have been lobbying for. Apart from anything else, all iOS and Android devices have open access to the web, which many market participants keep claiming to be the equal (or at least equivalent) of native apps.

I would certainly concur that extra transparency from Apple and Google about their app policies would be beneficial, as well as some guarantee of consistency and right-of-redress. Lack of portability of apps, music and other material could also be an angle where competition authorities might probe. 

Yet I find it deeply hypocritical that telcos are trying to position themselves as champions here, as they don't really have a particular axe to grind and many practice egregious examples of application lock-in themselves. I'm also not aware of any operator apps that have been blocked from appstores, although some may still be smarting from their own failed attempts at launching stores and application platforms like the ill-fated WAC.

But there are deeper problems here, if you start thinking about the possible legislation of "platform neutrality". Given that increasingly "everything is software", any such rules would have very widespread ramifications - as well as all manner of ironic unintended consequences which could harm telcos even more than the device/Internet giants.

So while the intention might just be to allow customers to buy digital music from any online store to install on an iPhone, rather than just iTunes, extending that to a general rule would also imply:

  • Forcing telcos to ensure that other telcos (or Internet companies') telephony and messaging systems were available as alternatives to their in-house "primary voice" offers. In other words, users should be able to select Orange or AT&T or Skype as primary telephony providers on a Vodafone or Telefonica-provided handset.
  • Force telcos to allow users to replace connection-management software with any similar apps of choice. This would wipe out any future attempt to force devices to specific WiFi networks, for example.
  • If consumers are able to procure any content or app, they should also be able to remove or delete any app. This would work out badly for operators selling customised handsets, pre-loaded with their own apps or extra features. It could also mean that re-flashing an operator handset with legal (but vanilla) OS variants would also be expressly permitted in law, without sanction from the operator.
  • Forcing network vendors to allow 3rd party software to run on routers or switches - or their future SDN/NFV platforms. So Cisco might be forced to release APIs for Huawei & Ericsson Oracle to use, and vice-versa
  • Forcing providers of set-top boxes for cable/IPTV to allow Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Apple software to be installed onto their platforms
  • Forcing cloud SaaS providers to accept rivals' applications on their platforms - maybe hosted Office 365 on Google, or Microsoft CRM on Oracle's cloud, or Twilio on Verizon's cloud.
  • Forcing games console providers to deny exclusive deals, or special versions that cannot play on rival systems
  • Forcing car manufacturers to accept each others apps on in-vehicle systems - say, a Ford-branded navigation app in a BMW, or Mercedes engine-management software in a Jaguar.
  • Forcing TV manufacturers to allow users to install ad-blocking software.
I'm sure there are many other awkward cases where "allowing any legal software to be procured" could back-fire with fairly catastrophic effects on the operator.

And all this is before you get to issues around exactly how all this gets enforced, especially with platforms that are part-cloud, part-OS, part-Web and part-silicon/firmware. There's also all sorts of bear-traps about how all this actually manifests in APIs, what happens when "porting" stuff to new platforms incurs extra IPR costs (eg because on platform has licenced a patented technology, but another hasn't) and innumerable others.

In short, a lot of this is just usual telco whining about Apple and Google being smarter and faster than 3GPP and GSMA. And, as usual, the lack of understanding of the nature of software risks huge unintended consequences - especially around the forced "neutrality" of telcos' own platforms.

There possibly is a case to be made for application or content portability between different devices and OS's, to reduce switching costs from one platform to another and reduce lock-in risks to consumers. And I do agree that AppStore policies should be more transparent and enforced consistently.

But notably, none of this is something that consumer groups get especially riled about, especially to the same degree as Net Neutrality. Linking the two areas is mendacious and irrelevant. And above all, the "principles" of so-called Platform Neutrality exhibit seriously woolly thinking and a complete misunderstanding of the roles of software platforms. Some measure of lock-in or platform control is often desirable - including for the telecoms industry at itself. 

The main similarity between supporting Platform Neutrality and opposing Net Neutrality is that both have the potential to have huge and damaging unintended consequences for the telecoms industry. Be careful what you wish for.

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