Suddenly Apple hates Wi-Fi

Because removing porn from the App Store wasn't enough, now Apple's taking aim at software that helps iPhone, iPod touch and, soon, iPad users find Wi-Fi hotspots. Forgive me for cynically choosing to disbelieve the company's excuse -- that all of these apps use undocumented or private APIs and consequently must be removed for the sake of the platform's future. If Apple actually had a workable, believable strategy for approval, it wouldn't have approved any of these apps in the first place.

The apps are -- or, rather, were distributed under the trade names Sekai Camera, Wifi-Where, and yFy, among others; and they made it easier for owners of such devices to find Wi-Fi networks and thus avoid using their more costly and often congested 3G connections. In the bad old days of wardriving, we simply walked or drove along a public thoroughfare and constantly refreshed our network lists to identify convenient and often free hotspots. The process was manual and tedious, and these packages automated the process of discovery just in time for Wi-Fi to become table stakes on handheld devices. With more end users than ever before seeking safe havens to avoid busting their carrier-imposed 3G data caps, Wi-Fi finders, scanners, and stumblers had finally hit the big time.

Herding the subscriber sheep

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that Apple and its carrier-partners weren't particularly pleased with this trend. I'm going to assume the wizards at AT&T didn't much appreciate the potential long-term thinning of subscriber revenue, and quietly encouraged Apple to squash it before it became rampant. I'm singling out AT&T because it's such an easy target of consumer discontent, but this may as well apply to any other carrier in any other country. They're all cheering Apple's move because it tilts device traffic back onto their own wireless networks.

Carmi Levy Wide Angle Zoom (v.2)Never mind that developers have been begging Apple to open up the API so that they don't have to get in through the back door. Never mind that tech-savvy consumers now have another reason to jailbreak their devices. Never mind that this is yet another example of near-Draconian (or maybe full-on Draconian) control over a platform that, despite its extreme popularity, remains a prime example of the risks of leaving too much control in the hands of one provider.

What's to stop Apple from summarily choosing another category next week, or next month, or whenever, as a candidate for pruning? What's to stop Apple from deciding that developers, whose only option up to then was to creatively work around deliberately baked-in limitations in the SDK to bring consumer-friendly offerings to market, have gone too far and need to be taught a lesson?

To be blunt, no one can stop Apple from doing whatever it wants. I've said before that this is Apple's playground, which means it can make the rules, interpret them as it sees fit, and change them on a whim. And developers and other stakeholders have no say in any of this. They simply have to hope that the elephant they chose to sleep with doesn't roll over in the middle of the night and crush them.

I don't say this with malice or anger. It simply is what it is, and despite the platform's overwhelming success over the better part of the past three years, it leaves consumers and developers with a choice to either put up with Apple's model or seek alternatives.

Please hold that thought for a second.

A case of non-coincidental timing

All this comes just as Apple gets set to begin shipping iPads to an adoring public. Retail availability in the US is now set for April 3, and sometime toward the end of April in Canada. This means potential buyers are already deciding how much hard-earned cash to bring along when they wait in line overnight to buy one. Will they cheap out for the basic Wi-Fi version, or will they go full-on for a 3G-enabled iPad?

The timing of the latest app takedown is no coincidence: Apple and AT&T clearly want to influence potential buyers to stretch for a 3G-capable version to at least hold out the potential of ongoing subscription-based revenue. Think of this latest move as a scorched-earth strategy for wannabe-Wi-Fi-only iPad users. I'm betting that around this time next month, Wi-Fi-only iPads will be only slightly more difficult to find than two-headed Lincoln pennies, as Apple's carrier-friendly/consumer-unfriendly supply chain strategy snaps into focus.

Which brings us to the alternatives. As Microsoft is painfully learning, no platform remains dominant forever. Sooner or later, the conditions that allowed the market leader to become the leader in the first place will shift, and in so doing, will allow challengers to lay down roots and eventually outflank them. The incumbent's vulnerability to defeat in this manner can be influenced by how it treats its market. Do so with cooperative partnership and you stand a better chance of getting stakeholders -- namely developers and consumers -- to stick with you a bit longer. Do so with a cynical sense of arrogant protectionism, and they'll happily dance on your grave.

The crack in Apple's foundation?

Does this mean Apple's latest App Store move will lead to its ultimate demise? No. But does it shift a few more grains of sand in a different direction? I strongly believe that it does. And we all know how massive tectonic market shifts can begin with a few simple moves. It could be years before the rats begin to abandon any sinking ship with an Apple logo on it, but don't think for a second that seemingly small acts like this won't play an eventual role.

The iPhone/iPod touch/iPad universe remains the place to be if you're looking to build mobile apps. Google's Android is a distant second fiddle, and RIM is barely out of the gate. But Google's approach -- open source and decidedly less school marm-ish in its definition of what developers can and cannot do -- may yet be the kind of landscape that developers will target if Apple's mercurial form of relationship building becomes too onerous. Apple's Wi-Fi move is pushing things with this sensitive audience yet again. At some point, they may yet decide enough is enough.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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