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Blackberry argues for 'app neutrality,' but industry experts are dubious

Should app makers be held to the same non-discriminatory practices as telecoms in the net neutrality debate? Blackberry says yes. Many industry experts say no.

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    BlackBerry Ltd. Chairman and CEO John Chen speaks at the BlackBerry Security Summit in New York City in this file photo taken July 29. This week Mr. Chen laid out his proposal for 'app neutrality.'
    Mike Segar/Reuters/File
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If an app maker makes an app for iOS and Android, should they also be required to make one for Blackberry’s app store?

Blackberry chief executive John Chen says yes, and that this debate is an extension of net neutrality – the idea that tech companies should be protected from paying telecoms for faster online services.

Mr. Chen laid out Blackberry’s thoughts on net neutrality and laid out his argument for “app neutrality” in a memo to Congress (released in a condensed form on Blackberry’s blog) this week. He says that while telecom companies lay the infrastructure of the Internet, the content that uses that infrastructure is created by third parties. He says it isn’t fair for those content creators to limit their distribution to just one app store or the other. 

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“If we are truly to have an open Internet, policymakers should demand openness not just at the traffic/transport layer, but also at the content/applications layer of the ecosystem,” Chen writes. “Banning carriers from discriminating but allowing content and applications providers to continue doing so will solve nothing.”

There is a backstory to Chen’s argument. After he took over as CEO, the company worked to expand its most popular services to a variety of mobile systems to counteract huge financial losses. Most notably, it released Blackberry Messenger to iOS and Android. However, other major tech companies have not returned the favor with their services, which Chen says puts Blackberry and others at a disadvantage. He cites Apple not releasing iMessage to Android or Blackberry, and Netflix not creating a Blackberry app as examples of this discrimination.

“This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems,” he writes. “These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level.”

Industry experts are dubious.

“The point of net neutrality rules is to maintain the Internet in its non-discriminatory state,” writes PC World’s Jared Newman. “With Chen’s proposal of app neutrality, no such non-discriminatory state exists. Each new platform merely creates more work for developers, thereby requiring greater investment. Under Chen’s proposal, the barriers to entry for a small startup would become greater, and innovation would be stifled. App neutrality may be beneficial for BlackBerry, but it would actually counteract the things that net neutrality is trying to achieve.”

Since anyone can create an operating system, it would also be very difficult for federal regulators (and app creators) to understand which OS would have to be considered under this regulation, Mr. Newman says.

“It’s also worth noting that BlackBerry doesn’t offer native BBM apps for Windows, Mac OS X or the web, so it’d be violating its own idea right out of the gate,” he adds.

In other words, it would create a lot of work for app makers, which could stifle innovation, says Forbes’ Ewan Spence.

“It would increase the costs on every mobile developer as they would be forced to write the same app for multiple operating systems, potentially in multiple languages, to be released at the same time, and offer continued support across a huge range of handsets,” he writes.

This week, there are several congressional committees weighing President Obama and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to wired and wireless broadband as Title II services. If this stands, telecoms would have to adhere to more than 100 pages of regulation that prevent them from acting against the public’s interest. Critics worry that the regulation, which was last updated in 1996, isn't up to date enough to address the Internet as it stands today.

The net neutrality debate is over whether ISPs can charge Internet companies more for taking up a larger bandwidth. This issue has grown in prominence over the past year as video streaming services, such as Netflix, paid extra to ensure their customers would have smooth streaming. 

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