Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Drones and Apple's App Censorship


This morning, a tweet in my morning commute twitter stream turned my attention to an article about how Apple still wouldn't approve a drone mapping app called Drone+ after four months.  

For the purposes of this post, a drone will be assumed to be the traditional type of drone, not the French "Pull it out of le backpack and launch" Mirador, or Turkish Bayraktar ("Baykar") style mini and micro drones.

The basic synopsis of the argument ran like this:
* The app uses non-classified information that is found at other sources.
* One anti-war congressman wants Apple to approve the app
* Apple needs to get out of the censorship game.

I think this a bit of a one-sided view of a much more complicated scenario, because the congressman has one country in mind - the USA - and whilst there are calls for the US to be a little more transparent in how it's drones operate, that's not really the issue here.

As mentioned above, the information in the app is freely available elsewhere, so those that need access to this can do one of two things:
a) Go find the information elsewhere.
b) Jump to a competing ecosystem like Android.  It's a free market after all.

So if that's not the issue, what is?  In short, it's foreign relations nightmare waiting to happen.

Apple is a global company.  It has stores in France (who operate the Sperwer & Harfang drones), Germany (who operate KZO and Heron drones), Italy (who operate RQ-1B's), Turkey (who operate Falcon 600's, Firebee, CL-89's, and Gnat drones), the UK (Reaper, Hermes 450 & Gnat 750)… you get the picture.   Then there's Russia, China, India, and Israel, all of who own drones, too.

It doesn't take a genius to pick out the war/fighting hotspots here, like Turkey, Israel, China, Russia.  If an app was released in the USA and someone subsequently came along in one of these other countries and tried to release a competing app, you now see a very different issue:

1.  If Apple released an app for the drones in other countries, those countries might be a little upset about this.  This soon becomes a government relations issue.
2.  If Apple didn't release the app, then they will be accused of double-standards on their censorship.  This too, might escalate into a government relations issue.

As you can see, the bigger picture has a lot to do with the proverbial "slippery slope" that both Apple and US Gov would find itself in.  Given that Apple in it's capacity as a very "American" icon already has fingers in other military pies (iPhone's since the 4S all support Russia's GLONASS system, for instance so as to avoid import taxes in Russia whilst simultaneously allowing Russia to stop relying on the US's GPS system) would be very bad for business.

Therefore, I can only conclude that the reason they will not approve this app is not out of some puritanical sense of censorship in the app store, but simply that a) it will create a massive can of worms from a relations standpoint, and b) it'll be very bad for business given that they have to fight in foreign markets against manufacturers like HTC and Samsung whilst maintaining total control of the App Store.