Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: I think John Chen is a very smart guy who has done a terrific job leading BlackBerry out of a very bad situation so far. But on Tuesday afternoon, he penned a blog post on net neutrality that might be the single most boneheaded take on the debate I’ve ever read.
Essentially, Chen argues that people who are concerned about ISPs discriminating against certain kinds of traffic running over their networks should be equally concerned that app developers are discriminating against BlackBerry users by not developing apps for BlackBerry’s mobile platform. No, seriously.
“Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality,” Chen says. “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.”
Here’s why this is a ridiculous argument: Net neutrality is important because ISPs have the unique power to put their thumbs on the scales of who wins and who loses in online commerce and services. If ISPs sign deals with certain companies to guarantee that their traffic will get delivered faster in exchange for money, then it will put rival services at a disadvantage for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality or costs of what they’re offering.
If we were going to translate this to the world of the mobile app ecosystems, then it’s really the platform provider that has the same power that ISPs do. If, for example, Apple were to include code in iOS that somehow degraded the performance of BBM and other messaging apps on the iPhone, that would be a legitimate example of discrimination because Apple would be using its monopoly power on the platform to hurt competitors.
What Chen is saying here is that if an app developer chooses not to bring their app to every single mobile platform — whether it’s because they lack the resources to develop for more than one platform or because that platform just doesn’t offer them strong enough opportunities to make money — then that’s the same has exerting the same monopoly power that ISPs and platform providers have.
It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize the absurd implications of this. If app developers should be compelled to develop for BlackBerry, does that mean they must make Firefox OS apps, webOS apps and Tizen apps as well? Does the mere fact that someone has built a mobile platform entitle them to have every single app that’s been developed for iOS and Android?
And really, does anyone think that BlackBerry brought its popular BBM service to iOS and Android just because of a noble commitment to “openness and neutrality?” Of course not: BlackBerry brought it there because iOS and Android are popular mobile platforms and BlackBerry knows it can make money from having its apps available on them.
At any rate, I think Chen is smart enough to realize how stupid this notion really is. Why he thought it would be a good idea to write it up anyway, however, is a total mystery.