Apple Says "Sue Us, Please!" to iPhone, iPad Developers

Last Updated Apr 9, 2010 2:52 PM EDT

At this point, we all know that Apple (AAPL) doesn't like Adobe (ADBE) Flash -- and maybe the entire company. Now there's news of a change in Apple's developer agreement for the iPhone OS, which also covers the iPad. Apple has effectively banned the Adobe Flash-to-iPhone compiler, as John Gruber notes. You could make a number of arguments as to why Apple is taking this stance, but I wonder whether it, combined with other terms in the agreement, opens the company to a humongous antitrust class action suit for trying to exert too much control over how third parties do business.

The actual change in the contract is an addition to section 3.3.1, which used to read, "Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs." Here's the new wording:
Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).
I agree with Gruber that this precludes any cross-compiler, whether Adobe's upcoming Flash-to-iPhone software or MonoTouch, which turns apps written in with .NET from Microsoft (MSFT).

Apple quietly changed the agreement yesterday, knowing that most of the press would be distracted by the iPhone OS 4.0. The new provision already has some developers furious. (Credit where credit is due -- the developer who writes the "As Seen Through PeriVisioN" blog pointed this out to me in a comment yesterday.)

But this is hardly the first serious restriction in the agreement on how developers may work and market:
  • You can only sell an app through Apple. If it rejects or withdraws the app, you're not allowed to sell it through any competing app store.
  • You can't reverse engineer anything by Apple, even if to ensure interoperability in a manner that U.S. courts have accepted as legal.
  • You can't change how any Apple-made device works, which means that an iPhone OS developer can't adapt an iPod to work with open source software. This remains true even after contract termination, so developers may be precluded from future business activity that would otherwise be legal.
  • Developers must agree to the contract before downloading any development tools, so they can't ever develop iPhone-compatible apps and then change their minds and work with an app store competitors.
  • They can't even install the iPhone OS software developer's kit -- the basic development tool -- on a non-Apple branded computer.
I'm no lawyer, but look at the control Apple exerts over independent software companies. It certainly seems anti-competitive. I'd be surprised if even now class action lawyers aren't trolling for disaffected developers -- maybe some whose apps had been rejected by Apple and who, as a result, were precluded from going to market, even after investing time and money. It seems like too good an opportunity for attorneys in that business. It wouldn't be the first time Apple settled a class action, whether over iPod nanos, monitor, power adapters, or iPod batteries.

Should this happen -- and I think it's more a matter of when than if â€"- I bet a settlement would include enough changes to seriously dent Apple's strategic approach to maintaining control over its closed ecosystem. One can only hope.

Original image: Flickr user umjanedoan, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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