Why BlackBerry's app neutrality is crazy

image-20150122-12095-1i5dvq7Last night, BlackBerry CEO John Chen penned a blog post on net neutrality. He was in favor of net neutrality but in the last half of his post introduced a whole new notion of neutrality: “Application Neutrality” or app neutrality for short.

Suffice it to say, the Internet decided this was crazy. And, I’m going to keep it real here, an agree. It is crazy. Really crazy to equate app neutrality with net neutrality.

But it is perhaps important at times like this to remind ourselves why. One of the dangers of the net neutrality debate is that the case for net neutrality can quickly fall into the trap that it is good because it’s fair. But as Scott Adams has told us it is a word that allows morons to participate in debates. The app neutrality claim similar has a ‘fairness’ feel about it.

So what was Chen meaning when he raised the issue of ‘app neutrality’?

All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer’s mobile operating system.

He argues that BlackBerry is practicing this because it made its popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) as an application on all mobile platforms including iOS, Android and even Windows. However, Apple, for instance, has its iMessage app only on Apple devices. In addition, Netflix hasn’t bothered to make an app for BlackBerry. That last claim is a little rich as Netflix is available on the web so is hardly prohibited from BlackBerry users.

Now what is going on here? BlackBerry would like to compete for Apple customers but it knows that some key apps aren’t available. iMessage may be one constraint in that a switcher would lose their messages if they moved to BlackBerry. Of course, that is the reason BBM was made widely available. They hoped to encourage consumers over so that, in the future, making a switch would be easy. When BlackBerry was the big cheese prior to 2010, BBM was locked into their system. But it is true: if apps were more widely available across platforms it would be easier for consumers to switch between them.

We could spend some time talking about switching costs and competition. That is a relevant issue. It is why, for instance, we have mobile number portability between carriers. Switching costs can reduce competition. But even so that is a long stretch to claim that we need app neutrality. There are costs and complications in that notion that I won’t begin to get into here.

But the important thing is that it is completely different from the issues that drive net neutrality. We want net neutrality so that people who are providing content and apps have a channel to put them on – namely, the web – and they won’t face differential charges and quality of service in doing so. It will then ensure access to consumers without the possibility of price discrimination by some bottleneck provider – either a carrier or perhaps even a mobile operating system owner – in the middle. Without such neutrality, those in the middle will have the ability to use price discrimination of some form to extra profits from content providers and perhaps app makers. This would reduce their incentives to develop that stuff in the first place and the entire ecosystem would suffer. (This argument is made by me here).

Thus, in the net neutrality world, Apple is the app maker. So what we would be concerned about is BlackBerry refusing to make Apple’s iMessage available rather than the other way around. Or at least that would be the closest analogue here. Instead, the app maker, Apple, has decided they do not want to make their app available to all customers. This happens all the time. For instance, Netflix does not make their content available to people unwilling to pay $8.99 a month for it. App makers and content providers are allowed to restrict access in a net neutrality world. Net neutrality is about protecting them not others.

So Chen was wrong to associate app neutrality with net neutrality and muddy that debate. He may have a point somewhere about switching costs but he did not present a reasoned argument. He just jumped up and down and claimed it was unfair. Crazy.

3 Replies to “Why BlackBerry's app neutrality is crazy”

  1. The analogy for net neutrality is (as you note) not number portability – it is any-to-any connectivity. That was actually the meaning of “Universal Service” when first coined by Theodore Vail too.

    But any-to-any connectivity did have to have legislative backing with the introduction of competition and it did require a means of determining the interconnect price. And those interconnection prices are usually cost based. Only one crazy-brave paper (by you Josh and Stephen King) ever made the case that call termination rates should be set at short run marginal cost – and hence effectively zero.

    In the real world of telephony (at least in Australia) we still have instances of differential prices for on-net and off-net calls – which is the telephony equivalent of not having net neutrality.

    If we go back to app neutrality the neutrality sought is really just an open system for app development…I should be free to build the app for any platform (subject to limitations that may exist in the platform). In the net neutrality world I shouldn’t as the ISP be able to discriminate between traffic IF you the content provider deliver the traffic to my network. But if I the ISP have to pay third party transit fees to get content A and not pay third party transit fees for content B, then I should be able to discriminate (preferably by price) access to content A,

  2. App Neutrality is important, but it’s not what Chen is suggesting (That’s ‘port all your stuff to Blackberry at your own cost’).

    ‘App Neutrality’ would let anyone develop for a system, so it doesn’t exist for iOS, Android, Blackberry, XBox, Sony or Nintendo platforms because the platform/app store holder acts as an arbitrary gatekeeper and toll-taker.

    It does exist for the Web, Windows, Mac and Unix/Linux, but boy do Microsoft and Apple wish it didn’t.

  3. Every time someone quotes Scott Adams in support of ANYTHING, their credibility is halved. Even when, as in this case, they’re absolutely right.

    Scott Adams believes that he is the smartest person in the world on every subject that exists. And, like most people who believe this, on most subjects he is right only by accident.

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