Friday, February 26, 2010

Sex Trumps Jobs, as in Steve, in Apps Flap

Business Week

Is the iPhone bigger than sex? Not likely, but we may be about to find out.

Last week, Apple Inc., whose iTunes App Store is the sole official source of programs for the iPhone and iPod Touch, removed access to thousands of sexually suggestive apps. Among the casualties: Wobble iBoobs, which allows users to, er, animate specific portions of photographs, and Private Dancer, which promises, “Our girls have some serious moves guaranteed to put you in that special mood.”

In an interview with the New York Times this week, Apple executive Phil Schiller explained, “It came to the point where we were getting customer complaints from women who found the content getting too degrading and objectionable, as well as parents who were upset with what their kids were able to see.”

A noble sentiment, to be sure. But at the same time Apple was saying buh-bye to some racy apps, it left untouched others from the likes of Playboy Enterprises Inc. and Time Warner Inc., which offers an app built around Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue -- you can upgrade it to get “Soccer Stars’ Wives & Girlfriends in Bodypaint” -- and another called the SI Swimsuit Challenge Game.

When asked about the apparent contradiction, Schiller, who’s head of worldwide product marketing, said of SI: “The difference is this is a well-known company with previously published material available broadly in a well-accepted format.”

In other words: Double standard? There’s an app for that.

Whiff of Hypocrisy

One doesn’t have to take a position pro or con on the merits of sexy apps to get a whiff of hypocrisy here. Apple, after all, is about to launch its much-touted iPad media device, and Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs needs big publishers like Time Warner to produce compelling content for his new baby. This would be a particularly inconvenient time to pick a fight with them.

All this wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for the near-iron-clad control Jobs and Apple exercise over software for the iPhone and iPod touch.

It’s possible -- in fact, fairly easy -- to “jailbreak” the devices, which allows users to download apps from sources other than Apple’s iTunes App Store. (Jailbroken iPhones and iPods are also a major factor in the growing problem of app piracy.) For the vast majority of users, though, the App Store is the only source of software.

Developers must submit their applications to Apple, which has the sole power to decide whether they gain access to users of the 75 million or so iPhone OS devices out there. It’s a power Apple has on occasion shown itself willing to use selectively for corporate purposes.

No App for You

For instance, at the behest of its U.S. telecommunications partner AT&T Inc., Apple last year refused to allow EchoStar Corp. to release an app letting users of its SlingBox device access video content from their home televisions over the AT&T 3G data network. Apple accepted the app only after Sling Media agreed to disable the 3G aspect and make it usable only over a Wi-Fi connection. (Earlier this month, AT&T and Sling Media settled their differences, and the app has finally been cleared for 3G use.)

If another company -- say, Microsoft Corp. -- had similarly flexed its muscle, the cries of “antitrust violation” would have been deafening. Apple gets away with it because … now why does Apple get away with it again?

When it comes to sex and the iPhone, though, Jobs just might have met his match. Technology and porn go together like, well, let’s just say it’s no accident that the annual Adult Entertainment Expo trade show runs in Las Vegas at the same time as, and virtually alongside, the Consumer Electronics Show.

Sex-Driven Innovation

In fact, it’s hard to think of a video-related consumer technology whose rise wasn’t accompanied by, indeed fueled by, sexual content. Cable television, the video cassette recorder -- you name it. The New York musical “Avenue Q” includes a ditty entitled, “The Internet Is for Porn.”

There’s no reason to think smartphones will be any different. So maybe, rather than trying to ban such content, it would be better to regulate it. Segregate adult apps in their own section of the App Store, strengthen parental controls, perhaps require a user to re-enter the account’s credit-card information before downloading anything naughty.

Whatever the approach, at least apply it evenly.