Is it time for Apple to face an antitrust investigation?

Is it time for Apple to face an antitrust investigation?

Summary: Apple's always had a reputation as a tight-lipped company, but now it's under fire for being a bully as well. Today, the open-source VideoLAN Foundation claimed that Apple is actively trying to block its widely used multimedia playback program, VLC. Is it time for antitrust regulators to take a closer look?

SHARE:

[Update 18-December 8:00AM EST to include responses from VideoLAN Foundation spokespersons, including the manager of the VLC project.]

Apple's always had a reputation as a tight-lipped company, but now it's under fire for being a bully as well. A sensationalistic story in Gizmodo this week painted an alarming picture of Apple's Worldwide Loyalty Team and its ruthless tactics for hunting down the sources of internal leaks. And now an upstart open-source developer claims that Apple is actively trying to block its widely used multimedia playback program, VLC.

For the past month or so, I’ve been alternating between Windows 7 and OS X Snow Leopard, as part of an experiment I first wrote about in September (see Can a Windows geek learn to love Snow Leopard?). Last week I used Snow Leopard full time, and one of the issues I ran into repeatedly was one I cited in that post last September. iTunes on the Mac won’t play back much of the music in my large media collection, because it doesn’t support the WMA or FLAC formats, and the alternatives are few and far between:

Converting all those tracks to alternate formats would take several days and isn’t an option, so for now I’m using VLC. It’s a perfectly adequate bare-bones playback program but a terrible library manager.

I've used VLC on the PC platform for years. It's a great, lightweight playback program that deserves the praise it's received for its performance and versatility. Coincidentally, tech analyst Michael Gartenberg noted earlier this week that the new Beatles collection comes in the lossless FLAC format and asked via Twitter what’s the best way to listen to those files on his Mac.

The answer is still VLC, and the limitations I cited in my September post are still there. But now there’s a new wrinkle. According to a number of Mac-oriented news sites, the open-source VLC project on the Mac is moribund, with the number of Mac developers “reported to have dwindled to zero.”

On its website, the VideoLAN Foundation says those reports are “greatly exaggerated.” The VLC team admits that the current graphical interface “is not being maintained at this time,” but says a new, more Mac-like version code-named Lunettes is under development, with a test release due in January.

What I found most interesting, though, was this terse but extremely pointed slap at Apple, dropped in at the end of the VLC team's post:

Finally, we have a few issues, since Apple doesn't want us on the Mac platform and is blocking us a lot, and refuses to explain why.

Really? Apple has a substantial investment in its iPod/iPhone/iTunes platform and makes huge profits there. Last week, the company bought Lala, which I identified last April as the best candidate to bust the iTunes monopoly. Buying and/or blocking competitors is the sort of thing that gets big companies into trouble with antitrust regulators. Just ask Microsoft, which earlier this week settled its long running antitrust case with the European Commission, after paying some $2 billion in fines. Or Intel, which is now the subject of a complaint by the FTC in the United States.

Update: Via e-mail VLC Manager Jean-Baptiste Kempf supplies more details about Apple's actions:

Apple is still considering that VLC is potentially violating Mac OS's license, and therefore has withdrawn VLC from apple.com/downloads, where we were on top of the downloads for years. This, of course, has slowed down our download rates on the mac.

The allegations that Apple did was that VLC was violating some QuickTime License, which is ridiculous, since we don't use QuickTime.

For more than 2 and a half years, we have been trying to get apple to answer this potential allegations, and we have been answered by noone, with no response. We have tried to contact them more than a few times, of course, with no break-through.

Seeing how many downloads happen through apple.com/downloads, this is a big hit for us. Therefore, we have to consider that Apple considers VLC illegal on its platform and wants us out of this platform. Of course, this won't block us from making great things in the future, because we have a few surprises coming in the next few months.

 Rémi Denis-Courmont, also of the VideoLAN Foundation, adds this comment in a separate e-mail:

Apple is the least cooperative of the operating system vendors at this point in time. It used to go very well with them. But then they threatened us with bogus copyright infringement claims.

Then they started pretending we did not exist. That is what JB referred to when he wrote "blocking". To this day, we have no explanations why VLC has been unlisted from the official Apple downloads list.

Compare to Microsoft. They funded our Windows 7 compatibility program participation. Better yet, Linux and BSD distros typically do include VLC in their installable package list.

(As a developper, I'd further add that MacOS claimed POSIX support is but a bad joke. But that is obviously not a deliberate attempt from Apple at blocking VLC ;) )

The VideoLAN Foundation is organizing a developers conference that starts tomorrow in Paris. From there, it’s only a short train ride to Brussels and the European Commission offices. If Apple really is trying to shut down this open-source competitor, maybe a sit-down with the EC would do some good.

Topics: Open Source, Apple, Enterprise Software, Hardware, Security

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

248 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • It's way PAST time. (nt)

    ...
    IT_Guy_z
    • Apple maybe feel they have to ...

      ... play a bit like that to at least keep abreast with another large software company that is well know for such tactics.

      No worries though, FOSS will grow slowly over, on, in and around them.

      2010 onwards will be looked back upon as a software gold rush era for independents.
      CapitalismAteItself
  • Yes, and it's only fair.

    After all, they did it to Microsoft, so now it's Apple's turn.
    ptcruisergt
    • Seriously?

      So just because a competitor got investigated, Apple should too? Who's
      forcing you to buy from iTunes? It's a free download for both OS's. People
      all up in arms against iTunes should move back to cd's then.

      The biggest difference and why Apple hasn't been investigated is because
      they make the hardware and the OS -unlike MS, who makes just the OS
      and was monopolizing the market to force their browser on 3rd party
      hardware. Apple makes both so they should be able to put their programs
      on their hardware.

      You don't have to use it if you don't want to.
      slappymctaint1
      • Im sure youre joking

        Because it doesn't take any brains to know it's not just because a competitor got investigated. It's because of anti competitive behavior like the mentioned hindering an open source player alternative.

        I didn't see anyone suggest apple not be allowed to put itunes on macs, just prevent them from stopping alternavtives from running as well.
        Johnny Vegas
        • How are they stopping alternatives?

          By not answering questions? Killing people? Freezing funds of the open
          source competitors?
          Bruizer
      • Free download for both OS's?

        Uh, no. iTunes is a free download on PCs but it is bundled with OS X and AFAIK cannot be removed.
        Ed Bott
        • Ed needs a little Mac 101. Anyone else?

          http://www.apple.com/support/mac101/tour/

          Btw, you're welcome!!

          :-)
          Arm A. Geddon
          • Huh?

            The original post I replied to said iTunes was a free download for OS X. It's bundled with it.

            And the link you provide says nothing about removing it from OS X.

            Thanks, but not helpful. Now, if you had showed me this, you might have been helpful:

            http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1224
            Ed Bott
          • I thought maybe you could use some help.

            I wasn't sure how much you knew about OS X so I thought I would provide you a link. Sorry that I didn't explain myself better.

            Btw, if you were new to Windows 7 I'd provide you with this one.

            http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows7/help

            Or should I give them this one?

            http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Windows-7-Inside-Out/Ed-Bott/e/9780735626652

            ;-)
            Arm A. Geddon
          • Not new to either, thanks

            But I appreciate the plug.
            Ed Bott
        • Simply drag to the trash...

          And poof. Gone.

          You really need to learn the tool you are working on if you are going to
          even attempt (fairly) to use it full time.
          Bruizer
          • Um, dude?

            You're describing how to eliminate the alias, not the program itself. Sheesh.

            I linked to Apple's instructions, which are c onsaiderably more complex. But thanks for the misguided condescension.
            Ed Bott
          • Uh, no.

            That is the program itself. There is a background program, "itunes
            helper," that opens on startup, and that is not as easy to find, but not
            difficult. Look at the instructions again: to remove itunes, drag to the
            trash.

            How did you get this job? Seriously, how did you get this job?
            jct12
          • Ummm dude

            "You're describing how to eliminate the alias, not the program itself.
            Sheesh."
            Nope...you are dragging the iTunes application to the trash not an alias.
            Keep up sparky. You have no clue as to what you are talking about. The post
            was essentially correct.
            The iTunes helper, Some more hekp for ummmmm dude:
            http://osxdaily.com/2009/09/10/ituneshelper-what-does-itunes-helper-
            do/

            1. Drag iTunes app to trash.
            2. kill process for iTunes helper (which you don't even need)
            3. Turn off Login in item (start up item for the Windows impaired.
            4. Empty trash. Itunes go bye. bye.
            I guess this is complicated for some.
            SquishyParts
          • I already posted the link with those instructions

            It is much more than just "drag it to the trash."

            But thanks for your help.
            Ed Bott
          • Nice attempt at redirection, Ed.

            Let's start from the beginning:

            You claimed iTunes couldn't be deleted. You were told it could be,
            and then, quite condescendingly, told us all that you knew what you
            were talking about.

            It was then shown that you did not know what you were talking about;
            iTunes can indeed be deleted. Your next step is to talk down to those
            who proved you wrong, because the method of deletion was a bit
            more than they stated.

            [b]Just admit you were wrong; iTunes can be deleted[/b]. Whether it
            takes one step or fifty, you were wrong, and your condescending
            attitude really makes you look foolish.

            I'd suggest leaving Apple matters to those who know what they're
            talking about, because this exchange shows that you certainly don't.
            msalzberg
          • @sceptical

            [i][b]Just admit you were wrong; iTunes can be deleted.[/b] Whether it takes one step or fifty, you were wrong, and your condescending attitude really makes you look foolish.[/i]

            Talk about condescending attitudes...

            He said, and I quote: [i]and [b]AFAIK[/b] cannot be removed[/i]: emphasis mine.

            AFAIK, meaning as far as I know. Which also means to the extent that I have knowledge on this subject... which also means there might be more to know. He already admitted he might not know everything about the removal. What more do you want?
            Badgered
          • I said AFAIK

            I stand corrected.
            Ed Bott
          • @badgered and @ed

            I did not mean to be condescending. In rereading my post, I still don't
            see it as such, but if you took it that way, I apologize.

            It was this line that got to me: "You're describing how to eliminate the
            alias, not the program itself. Sheesh."

            I agree that the "AFAIK" inoculated Ed from criticism for being
            incorrect originally. It was his attempted put-downs of those who
            were actually correct that put him over the line.

            Ed, I appreciate that you admit that you were wrong.

            msalzberg