Blogs & Comment

BlackBerry’s “App Neutrality” idea makes no sense at all

John Chen’s idea would lead to a world of half-baked apps—mostly for BlackBerry users

BlackBerry's  CEO John Chen delivery his speech at the launch of the new Blackberry Z3 smartphone in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 13, 2014. (Achmad Ibrahim/AP/CP)

BlackBerry’s CEO John Chen delivery his speech at the launch of the new Blackberry Z3 smartphone in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 13, 2014. (Achmad Ibrahim/AP/CP)

BlackBerry has waded into the net neutrality debate currently raging in the United States with a blog post by chief executive John Chen that can only be described as jaw-dropping.

In a nutshell, the company opposes a major change currently being considered to how broadband is governed. BlackBerry is also in favour of imposing new rules that would require app makers to create software for all phone manufacturers.

Individually, the positions are shocking. Taken together, they almost read like an early April Fool’s joke, as in, “He can’t be serious, can he?”

On the broadband definition front, Chen writes that BlackBerry opposes reclassifying internet access as a Title II service, which would ultimately give the FCC the ability to regulate it.

This sort of reclassification is favoured by both President Barack Obama and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, not to mention the millions of consumers who have written in to the regulator on the issue.

The slight expansion of existing rules instead, Chen argues, would be enough to prevent wireless carriers from imposing new fees on content providers, also known as paid prioritization.

The rules on a certain block of wireless spectrum that was auctioned off in 2008 prevent the company using those airwaves from blocking any content that runs over them, or preventing any devices from working on them. As Chen writes:

Verizon won the entire C block in the 2008 auction and has lived under those rules ever since. The rules have withstood the test of time and have functioned well. There is no evidence the rules have failed to achieve their purpose or have failed to protect the principle of an open wireless internet. With that positive experience to guide us, why not extend the C-Block rules to all mobile broadband spectrum and all carriers?

The problem with Chen’s argument here is that he seems to be forgetting what sparked the latest round in this whole net neutrality battle. It wasn’t wireless, but rather cable provider Comcast trying to extort more money from Netflix by slowing the streaming service. This happened on the wired side.

It’s true that Wheeler only recently decided to lump wireless in with wired access when considering net neutrality rules, but Chen’s suggestion applies only to the business that BlackBerry is in. It ignores the original problem on the wired side.

What is to be done there? Unfortunately, the post offers no insight.

U.S. wireless carriers have tested and in some cases bent generally understood net neutrality principles, which tend to frown on schemes like paid prioritization. T-Mobile exempting certain music services from data caps—and not others—is a good example.

Wheeler has correctly surmised that if such activities are going to be forbidden on the wired internet, it probably makes sense to apply them in wireless too.

Chen’s piece really descends into wackiness with the suggestion that app makers should be forced to make software for all phone platforms, not just Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. He writes:

Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users…

Neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. 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.

If this suggestion were to come from Google, which has more than 80 per cent of the global smartphone market, there might be some validity to it. But it’s instead coming from a company that whistled away a market it once had entirely to itself, all the way down to a tiny, almost non-existent sliver.

BlackBerry decisively lost the smartphone war and the associated race for apps. The company is now trying to cast app makers’ logical decisions on where to allocate their resources as “discrimination.”

There is perhaps a point in there somewhere—like, wouldn’t it be nice if consumers could easily move between phone platforms and have all the same apps waiting for them there—but it’s unfortunately buried by how incredibly impractical the whole scenario would be.

It’s not hard to imagine the dystopia that would come to pass if Chen’s suggestion were to be considered with any seriousness:

  • Here’s Netflix spending time and money on designing an app for every phone operating system there is, regardless of whether anyone is using it or not.
  • Here’s a whole host of app makers still devoting their energy to iOS and Android and cranking out half-baked—no, quarter-baked—apps for BlackBerry, just because they have to.
  • And here’s BlackBerry complaining to the FCC that said app isn’t as good on its phones as it is on Android.
  • Here’s the FCC buried under a flood of complaints from sore losers.

Why stop there? Perhaps BlackBerry could also insist that anyone who buys a competing phone should be required to also buy a Passport or a Classic? It could be called “choice neutrality.”

Or conversely, why not require all phones to come with physical keyboards? Why should BlackBerry owners exclusively get to type faster?

If we’re going to get on this crazy train, we might as well ride it off the rails.