Apple Wants to Own Software Publishing for iPhones and iPads

Last Updated Aug 13, 2010 3:33 PM EDT

An Apple (AAPL) patent for a slick concept -- automatically generating a book describing a user's videogame performance -- came to light yesterday. Record the performance and turn the highlights into illustrated panels in a book, ebook, or comic book.

However, take this patent application in the context of other recent ones and of Apple's long-documented strategy and practices regarding iOS apps, and it's easy to conclude that the company is interested not in being just a platform, or even the source of software, but of being the effectively sole publisher and main driver of what would otherwise be third party applications. It's a clever and bold strategy, but one that will increasingly become an issue for software companies that want to go into mobile but see conflict with Apple.

Most people, including myself, have seen Apple as a software reseller, when it comes to iPhones and iPads. A restrictive one, to be sure -- you only have Apple as a choice if you publish iOS-based apps. But as I looked through a list of application areas that Apple is trying to nail down via patents, I realized that the company isn't reselling apps. It is the world's only app publisher.

Given the number of businesses and individuals writing iOS apps and selling them, that may seem a ridiculous statement. But consider the following conditions that Apple's developer license enforces:
  • You can only sell through Apple.
  • Apple can stop selling or get rid of your app at any time for any reason -- and can do so remotely, even after installation.
  • You must agree to the contract before even downloading any of the development tools. That means you can't change your mind and sell apps through one of the Apple app store competitors.
Now add that Apple can refuse to sell an app if it doesn't like the content, if the app isn't written or designed in a way Apple likes, if it treads on the toes of functions that Apple provides, or if it doesn't add something that the company thinks is significant enough to come to market.

Taken together, particularly with the exclusive control over distribution, and these are the characteristics of a publisher. Apple has effectively become the only publisher for iOS, except it has done it in a way where the developers, who clearly do all of their work on speculation, are responsible if Apple's customers return products of it there are legal issues. It's all the upside of publishing someone else's software with virtually none of the downside.

However, the trend doesn't stop there. Apple has been attempting to patent new application ideas. There's nothing wrong with that, as clearly Microsoft has its own applications that have competed with third party vendors. But with Apple, there is no competition possible, because it can single-handedly block, or take out of the market if already selling, any app that would compete with something it plans to release.

The game to book patent application is just one example -- and one that would depend on the intellectual property of the company that owns the game in question. Here are some of the Apple patent applications that have recently become public:
Much of this seems clearly to have crossed the line between producing and expanding a mobile platform, and trying to lock down areas that reasonably could be described as natural app ideas.

Executives at software companies have a difficult choice. On one hand, they rightly see Apple's iOS platform as a potential business opportunity. But they must balance that with Google (GOOG) Android's increased strength in the market (although the Oracle (ORCL) suit over Java could make a big dent) and the prospect of being completely beholding to Apple.

Related: Road sign image: RGBStock.com users TACLUDA, site standard license. iPhone: Apple.
  • 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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