Is it time for Apple to face an antitrust investigation?

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?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor on

[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.

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