Report: Feds may launch inquiry into Apple's Flash stance

Apple may soon find itself the subject of a federal antitrust inquiry over its stance on Flash-built iPhone apps, if a report in the New York Post pans out.

The newspaper says the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission are discussing which of the two agencies would handle the inquiry, which would focus on changes to Apple’s iPhone developer license agreement, disclosed last month, that require iPhone apps to be written in Apple-approved programming languages. The inquiry would investigate whether Apple’s policy is anticompetitive. The Post cites “a person familiar with the matter” as its source for the rumored inquiry.

A few boulder-sized grains of salt should accompany this news. Besides the fact that a rumored federal inquiry is not the same thing as an actual federal inquiry, an actual inquiry is not the same as a full-scale investigation. Rather, as the Post report notes, an inquiry would allow the feds to determine if there’s enough evidence to merit a formal investigation.

The Post story also reports that Apple’s new policy requires iPhone and iPad app makers to “only use Apple’s programming tools,” which is not precisely what the developer agreement says. Rather, here’s how section 3.3.1 reads:

Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).

That’s not strictly a requirement that developers use Apple programming tools; it does require software to be written in languages that are supported by Apple’s Xcode programming environment, however. Apple announced the policy change in advance of Adobe's Flash CS5 release. The updated software promised to allow developers to build apps in Flash and then deploy them to multiple platforms, including Apple’s iPhone OS. Apple contends that such an approach creates lower-quality apps that fail to take advantage of iPhone OS-specific features.

Nevertheless, a federal inquiry—if one were to wind up happening—would raise the temperature on the already boiling Adobe-Apple feud over Flash. Last week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs spelled out his company’s objections to Flash in an open letter posted on Apple’s Website. That prompted a response from Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen, who contends that Apple’s decision to bar mobile developers using Flash is a restrictive move that hurts developers and consumers.

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