CyberTech Rambler

January 10, 2011

VLC taking a stance on iOS

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 6:52 pm

As a potential user, I don’t like the fact that I download VLC on iOS App Store anymore. However,  I believe VLC is making the right decision.

Personally, as a programmer, VLC copyrights holders have the same rights as everyone to dictate how their software is to be used. The same way I cannot use proprietary software without paying, they can stop Apple from distributing VLC using iOS if Apple doesn’t agree to play by certain rules. Fair and square.

Second, and the most important in the long run, is the fight against device lock down. We do not yet know who will win this fight, but it is important to stay in this fight. My original thought on the VLC GPL saga is that the wrapper, i.e. Apple License Agreement is not really an important one because fundamentally and functionally, once the user downloaded the software,  they can get the source code. Originally I was actually of the opinion that this is no different (in practice) from holding the full app in a BitTorrent server buffer during transmission. However, after closer examination, I decided the correct way is to challenge the Apple License Agreement by not agreeing to it.

VLC is in a unique position to challenge Apple. For most Free and Open Source Software, we have proprietary equivalent that is at least as good as the FOSS version, some even match FOSS’s $$$ proposition. However, compared to proprietary media players, including QuickTime and Windows Media Player,  including taking into account that QuickTime give better image quality compared to VLC when you extend the window to full screen on my Mac, VLC is clearly superior as one can play almost every possible media type. That is an important advantage. In fact, I do not think there is any competition for VLC when it comes to media player.

It is my believe that Apple knows it. While I can see an overworked Apple employee rubberstamp the VLC application for approval, I cannot see the management layer that makes strategic decision about the iOS not knowing it. Apple is known to rigorously defend Apple’s own interest on App Store. including its fight with Adobe. Do you really think a team as competent as Apple’s will overlook the fact that VLC might be in direct competition with Apple’s media-type-crippled QuickTime? Why would Apple even think about tolerating VLC if it can force or nudge people to use QuickTime format?

I think Denis-Courmont, the person whose is ‘responsible’  for Apple withdrawing the app, is right to draw the line in the sand and use this advantage to fight for Free Software. Believe me, like the majority of pragmatic Free Software advocates, it is a difficult decision not to complain that Denis-Courmont was too rigid on principle and should let the focus on the practical reality: End users wants VLC on iOS and will still have access to the full source code. However, the risk that we might actually contributing to the loss of channels to distribute free software as all channels are locked down because we had allowed free software to be distrbuted on locked down channel is too big to contemplate.

This confrontation with Apple  is a good education for users and developers in the short run. In the long run, it s a pawn to fight against the lock down of devices. Failure to defend VLC now can have implications.While iPhone is one that generates the biggest headlines, I can see rampant copying of VLC code in other devices, such as media center devices where the will definitely be less headlines. That is, if we get any headline at all. Not reacting against the VLC application for iOS means VLC creators weaken their case against these and other  vendors, as they will use this app as defense in any lawsuit.

Brian Profitt’s excellent analysis makes a point which I think is extremely important: We must teach developer freedom from want. I think we should aim higher: Teach users freedom from want. It is perhaps impossible, but we should aim high.

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