Earlier this week, local papers reported that access to information--on bus arrival times--used in Singapore third-party mobile apps had been cut off by the country's primary bus operator, SBS Transit. Over 10 of such apps including SG Buses, SG NextBus and ShowNearby, with a user base of 1 million, had relied on SBS Transit's Intelligence Route Information System (Iris) to provide the data.
Access was blocked after SBS Transit implemented a captcha, user response-based security test, which effectively cut off all non-human access to information, including bus arrival times, in the company's network.
SG Buses then sought permission to tap the data but its request was turned down, and no reason apparently was given for the rejection. The app developer, however, said it has since received an e-mail from SBS Transit that its request is being reconsidered.
Needless to say, users of the affected third-party apps were outraged.
One noted that the Iris isn't accessible via BlackBerry and Windows Phone mobile devices because it doesn't support the respective device's Web browsers. In a letter to local daily, The Straits Times, Tan Jiaqi added that third-party apps not only benefit the country's growing smartphone population, they are available to consumers at no additional cost to SBS Transit.
Tan said: "Instead, by choosing to build its own app, SBS Transit would incur additional overheads which could be passed on to commuters. Worse, SBS has had a poor track record of building mobile apps, as can be seen from reports of the Iris iPhone app crashing."
SBS Transit itself offers a free app, Iris, on the iOS platform, providing essentially similar information the third-party apps had offered including bus arrival times and a journey planner. But the app currently ranks a lower 1.5 star rating on Apple's App Store, compared to the three-star rating for SG Buses as well as ShowNearby, and a four-star rating for SG NextBus.
It would be fair to speculate that SBS Transit might have restricted access to its data in order to drive traffic to its own app. But, Iris is currently offered as a free app and it carries no advertisements, so the company wouldn't potentially have incurred any revenue loss from allowing third-party apps to tap its data. So the motivation to drive the use of its app, other than boasting rights for having a high user base, wasn't exactly clear to me.
I contacted SBS Transit to find out if it has plans to monetize the app, to which its senior vice president of corporate communications, Tammy Tan, replied in an e-mail: "Iris was introduced to provide bus arrival times for our commuters. It is not intended to generate revenue for the company."
I also asked why the request from SG Buses to access its bus arrival times was rejected. Tan said many third-party app developers had been accessing its information without prior approval. This could result in inaccurate information being provided to consumers "since we have no control over these developers", she said, adding that a captcha was, therefore, introduced as a verification process.
SBS Transit, however, "recognizes" that consumers would find it useful to access some third-party apps. Tan said: "As such, we are currently evaluating several requests by third-party app developers and assessing them based on the merits of their proposals. App developers are welcomed to resubmit their requests, providing complete details of their applications, if these had not been provided earlier."
It's great that the local bus operator has left the door open for third-party app developers to regain access to its Iris data, but whether any of them will eventually succeed in doing so remains to be seen.
More importantly, though, should access have been disrupted in the first place?
As my fellow ZDNet Asia blogger, Bryan Tan, correctly points out in his post, SBS Transit is not in the app business and is instead, in a dominant position as a public bus service provider. Hence, an argument could be made over whether this dominance in one market is being used to reinforce in another, Tan noted. He pointed to the court ruling in the RecordTV case which stated that when statutory rights are unclear, a right balance between a copyright owner's interests and the public interest should be achieved in the use of new technology.
In the case of the SBS saga, rather than abruptly cut access, it would have helped if the bus operator provided better clarity on how third-party app developers could have "legitimately" tapped its Iris data.
Clearly laying out the terms and conditions of how its data should be applied would not only allow app developers to better understand what they need to do to stay within legitimate boundaries, end-users would also benefit from a bustling app ecosystem.
A ZDNet Asia report this week noted that confusion over licensing models used in appstores could inhibit open source development in the mobile computing realm.
Fuzzy logic just won't work in an environment that needs transparency to thrive.
[Update on 5.58pm, May 27, 2011: Bus arrival times have resumed on the SG Buses app, but it's unclear if this was the result of formal approval from SBS Transit.]