The Moral Difference Between iPhone and xbox: The Gabo! Problem.

I have been pondering today the question of why it so bothers me that Gabo!, by Yoot Saito (of Seaman fame), was rejected by Apple for iPhone.  The obvious issue is that it’s a curious and problematic situation when corporate entities own the tools of creative expression, and can stop distribution of an individual’s work. And this case is pivotal, as I don’t believe you can argue that his work isn’t art on some level, which could make it the Lady Chatterly’s Lover of the digital/hardware-approved content era. But, for me, it’s also more subtle, as I have long argued with more indie friends that the game console model of content control is fair because a) the hardware is subsidized, and hence the manufacturer is giving you better hardware than you’d buy for yourself for this use, in support of software sales and b) it’s focused primarily on commercial games, and not really a common carrier, as the PC serves as such an appropriate and parallel vehicle for content transmission. From a functional perspective, it never seemed to me that a non-commercial developer would bother putting in the time to learn the tools to put out a product onto a platform so customized to expensive development, and having an installed base so focused on gamers. This situation has changed slightly with xna and digital distribution, but still, developing for the console remains something that is logically targeted at gamers, under firm existing expectations on the part of creator and end-user.

On the mobile phone side of things, of course, carriers have long-subsidized the handset sale, based upon their contract revenue expectations. -They then hobbled the market for mobile game sales by demanding an exhorbitant revenue share for any games sold over their networks.

Now, along has come Apple with the iPhone, which does create a better ecosystem for game sales (better store, better revenue share to devs/pubs), but simultaneously muddies the water in several areas:

  • Intuitionally, somehow it does bother me that a device for which it is so simple to create applications, and which is in the hands of an everbroadening and general audience, should be throttled, with only approved applications being enabled. This is the user’s device for everything, encompassing all aspects of their personal and business lives.
  • The only hardware subsidy for the iPhone is from ATT, and is based upon the existing subscription paradigm. So I don’t feel that I’m getting my hardware subsized by the software markup. Apple restrictions of any sort just feel odious, unlike Microsoft’s restrictions on XBLA, etc., which only seem like self-inflicted wounds on their part.
  • The iPhone is ubiquitous enough in its class that it is beginning to feel like a monopoly player. The proportion of startups developing applications for iPhone as opposed to all other handsets is impossible to measure, but it feels like a massive difference. There is no effective competitor in the U.S. in the area of rich functionality smartphone devices; if you can’t distribute it on iPhone, you’re out of the market. Of course, this is only the case because Apple is so good at what it does, but that’s the reality.
  • By virtue of its usability and functionality, the iPhone makes the carrier’s network a pipe to everything I need for daily life. I just don’t have any expectations of restriction in that. A problem is that Apple, in all of its products, sets up a basic expectation that its products will do what you want, when you want, and very elegantly. Which is fine on the Mac, where their profits come from expensive hardware, and software upgrades, or limited-function iPod, but doesn’t fit so easily with being the carrier-selected front-end to a big pipe of data. And Apple’s need for complete control within the iPhone environment leads to some controls that are beginning to strike users as a bit yech, primarily not allowing Adobe Flash, or the use of other browsers which might enable such a thing.

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