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Monopoly Online

The Steam problem, but everywhere else too.

With some buzz about the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) ( S. 2992: AICOA), it’s important to examine what systems like app stores, marketplaces, and search engines really do and look like.

My general position is favoring competition, but I think it’s as important to ask what competition looks like in a digital space as to ask why we don’t have it. We don’t have it, and the economy and people are hurt from not having it. Anti-competitive practices don’t help, but there are frictions that are also in play.

Online distribution

What a search engine like Google, a marketplace like Amazon, and an app store like Apple’s or Google’s all have in common is that they are middlemen. The customer wants to get something or get somewhere, and they can’t just get it or go there directly. They need assistance due to the enormity of the world. So Google lets them try to find information or a resource that fits their needs. Amazon lets them seek products matching their need. Apple app store and Google app store both let them find the software for their mobiles.

The bill’s attempt is modest. It makes it illegal to engage in stacking the deck. But it doesn’t, won’t promote real competition, which is a harder problem.

If you had competition, what would it look like? You want to search for banana peels, for your banana peel collection, so you go to different engines and search each one? I do that today. I go on duckduckgo and search, and if it doesn’t turn up what I need, and I think Google might, I’ll search on Google.

For a marketplace, same thing. You want to buy banana peels, so you go on Walmart and Amazon and see who has the best prices. Or if you find the prices on Amazon too high you try Walmart as a fallback.

With the app stores, it’s worse, of course. Because there’s limited options and each phone is doing the same things differently so that there’s not compatibility across Android and iOS.

But even if you stick to marketplaces (and assume you have accounts with each, no onboarding friction), it’s still a mess to find things across multiple stores, to make multiple purchases means multiple shipments. And if there are more than two big players, how many can people reasonably go through to buy banana peels?

Isn’t the problem that these middlemen exist as middlemen? That there isn’t a broader interface that cuts through all that friction, lets you see products?

If all competition means is that a bunch of new silly names enter the market that look mostly the same as the existing firms, that seems a waste. True competition will require different firms with different and limited objectives to each. Replacing the singular middlemen with mixtures of smaller businesses that cooperate.

To make that work, though, other changes would be needed. Amazon and Walmart have efficiencies of scale, they have warehouses that can combine ordered merchandise into single shipments, they have fluid logistics that move products around the country all day and night.

And there are environmental benefits to that. There are cost benefits to that. How can you replicate it without forcing oligopoly? How can a free system do the same thing?

Of course, there are frictions. A new store means a new login, entering your data, learning a new interface. Sellers have the same problem. Each new middleman means they have to replicate their process to another, slightly different platform. If they have dozens of products and dozens of middlemen, that’s a lot of work to keep things updated. If they have to fit in with shipping logistics, that’s a whole other set of processes that get replicated.

And it’s not like the existing options work that well, anyway. Amazon product listings are an ugly mess most of the time. Google can find some things, but it fails wildly on others. And the state of mobile operating systems, much less apps, leaves them looking like toys. Major newspaper apps don’t have a find-on-page function! Something every browser has had for decades!

This bill should pass, but it will only marginally improve the broken stupidity of the status quo.

A better system would require several changes, few to law, some to business structures, and most to software. An identity system would remove onboarding. Outside of a few members-only stores, you don’t have to fill out paperwork to buy something in stores. A vendor-agnostic logistics system would allow for product listings to be added and curated separately and without a particular middleman.

Products could be provisioned to warehouses and shipped based on similar functions that middlemen perform, but without the need for middlemen to act as gatekeepers. Returns would be handled in a similar way. This would create a class of independent warehousing and logistics firms who would follow industry standards to fulfill their functions.

The state of mobiles is probably the most difficult. Proper separation of OS from userspace, with all the security concerns inherent in software, is very difficult. Mobiles are kind of crappy anyway. I’m not really sure what it will take to fix this mess. There are all kinds of simple things one imagines using the mobile for, that is either impossible or requires a lot of separate services today. The gap between the science fiction ideal of a pocket computer and the thing you can buy today is as big as the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. And that’s not something an antitrust bill does anything to address.


Update2: looks like they might be legit after all.

This Gizmodo exclusive video appears to show a Psystar box running OS X Leopard. Regardless, as many comments on that video point out any hobbyist with the desire and a copy of Leopard can build their own so-called “hackintosh” system. This thanks to the OSX86 Project.

I still think if you’re going to go Mac you should buy a real box from Apple. Their software isn’t the major departure many think it is. Their hardware is pretty good though, and the software does have many advantages over a Windows Vista system.

Still, for the power user the need to customize and control the system is the number one requirement and neither Microsoft nor Apple can provide that. Linux, FreeBSD, and the like, do just that. Computer users have been led to believe “oh, this software is broken, I must suffer as a result.” That’s diametrically opposed to the whole point of computers in the first place.

Update: By all accounts the company “Psystar” looks to be a hoax/sham. I never linked to them, or suggested they were a reputable company, but as always be skeptical of any business that doesn’t have a reputation. That said, the post (unedited) remains below and Psystar works fine as a hypothetical company for the purposes of the discussion. I’ve struck their name for effect.

Via CNet: Defiant Psystar back selling Leopard computers

Debate the aesthetics all you want, but I’d argue that Windows and Linux are, for the purposes of personal computing, close substitutes to Mac OS X. They can run a personal computer. They can connect you to the Internet. They can run a basic suite of productivity applications.

You may prefer Mac OS X for a variety of reasons, but Apple’s requirement that you can only run Mac OS X on Apple hardware doesn’t prevent you from using a personal computer. If the only other substitutes were Palm OS phones or AIX servers, maybe you would have a beef.

What is Psystar selling? Hardware. They are technically selling you a copy of Leopard too, but you could just as easily buy that from Apple directly.

Their product is designed to fill a particular need: to provide you with a computer that will run a specific piece of software. That software is Apple’s OSX Leopard in this case.

Unless you are supposing that Linux and Windows are (a) Apple products and (b) capable of running OSX the argument is dry.

The claim of monopoly regards the fact that you can only legally run OSX on Apple-branded hardware.

Of course, I think Apple is stupid for licensing their software in that way. They can license not to support non-brand hardware, but trying to justify legally that someone cannot do with their own property as they choose (with obviously reasonable bounds) is absurd.

If I want to buy an iPhone, hack it to run over a landline, just so I can brag about having the only wired iPhone on earth, that’s my damn business. If Apple sells me the phone and I’m not violating any FCC mandate or other law, it’s mine to do as I will.

I think Psystar has the right to sell these computers. I’m not convinced they should be selling them with hacked-to-run-on-beige Leopard. It seems to be more reasonable for them to provide the hardware, the software, and the know-how (including, for example, a linux disc to facilitate the beigification). The direct sale amounts to distribution which has hairier legal entanglements.