iPhone SDK restriction on GPS use — what’s the motivation?

Electronista goes rummaging through the license agreement of iPhone’s SDK and comes up with this clause restricting allowed uses of the included location-based APIs:

Applications [that use location-based APIs] may not be designed or marketed for real time route guidance; automatic or autonomous control of vehicles, aircraft, or other mechanical devices; dispatch or fleet management; or emergency or life-saving purposes.

The blog then goes on to speculate that this may be a way for Apple to prevent rivals from building navigation software for the iPhone.

That clause sounded very familiar, however. In fact, it is nearly equivalent to a clause in the Google Earth license agreement and the Google Maps API terms of service:

You may not use the Service with any products, systems, or applications installed or otherwise connected to or in communication with vehicles for or in connection with: (a) real time route guidance (including without limitation, turn-by-turn route guidance and other routing that is enabled through the use of a sensor); (b) any systems or functions for automatic or autonomous control of vehicle behavior; or (c) dispatch, fleet management or similar applications.

Their similarity prompted me to suspect that perhaps there is a regulatory cause for such clauses, rather than an attempt to stifle competition (which frankly, makes no sense, not for Google and certainly not for Apple, which is invested in making the platform a success. It would as nonsensical as prohibiting video editing applications on Mac OS X to protect Final Cut Pro.)

After some asking around, however, it’s been suggested that there are two other reasons why a clause restricting the use of mapping tools might find itself in a license agreement:

  • Liability protection: There is no need for government regulations preventing unsafe use of a tool when lawyers are all too happy to punish corporate “enablers” of such uses via lawsuits. Hence a ban on uses that may put you or others in harm’s way.
  • Licensing issues: iPhone’s built-in map tools use Google Maps tiles built with data from third party providers. It’s a standing assumption in the GIS world that such data is cheaper to license by Google et al. if it does not end up repurposed to compete with professional tools.

Of those two mooted reasons, I prefer the first, because the iPhone is a platform, not a dataset. Location-based iPhone networking application Loopt, demoed at the launch of the new iPhone, uses Microsoft Virtual Earth data, and surely that map is not governed by the Google Maps terms of use.

In sum, Apple doesn’t want to get sued for people with iPhones doing dumb, dangerous or daring things, such as flying one’s ultralight using an iPhone autopilot. (I’d really like to see somebody try that, though:-)

12 thoughts on “iPhone SDK restriction on GPS use — what’s the motivation?”

  1. “standing assumption in the GIS world… ”

    The geodata licensing structure for market categories you mention (car satnav / ‘real time route guidance’ etc) is typically per GPS device, and I doubt Apple or Google are willing to fork out a per-iPhone fee.

  2. As Ed says it looks like a licensing issue. Some GI data providers have different licenses (and pricing models) for specific uses (websites, car satnavs, etc).

  3. But then why insist on a blanket ban on such applications for a _device_? If I decide to make an iPhone application that uses my own data to do car satnav, this would not impinge on any licensing issues, yet iPhone’s SDK prohibits it.

    One possibility: That by “location-based APIs” Apple means its own, and that these return Google Maps-based data by default. In other words, if you were to make your own special calls to other mapping solutions, then there wouldn’t be a problem. But I don’t know anybody at Apple that can verify such things…

  4. Well it certainly grates that you can’t use, say, openstreetmap data. But I can’t think of a way the the prohibition could be less general without undermining the per-device licensing business model and thus doing the data providers out of their income. Though I guess none of this matters if everyone’s iPhone is hacked…

  5. I don’t think it has to do with what Google or Apple want. I think it is Navteq (read Nokia) and Tele Atlas (read TomTom) who do not want the giants Apple, Google, Microsoft to enter the navigation market place and take a lot of business away from them and their current customers.

  6. But Scott, why should anything Navteq or Tele Atlas want or fear have to do with the licensing terms of the iPhone? It is, after all, just a device. Its platform is also purely Apple. Why should Apple heed a demand by per-device license payers to avoid competition? The only “hook” is data, but surely an API can circumvent it. For example, you could provide your own data.

  7. Stefan,

    The geodata used to build the GMaps PNG tiles and associated services will have strict license conditions attached. If the geodata companies were smart several years ago, they would have limited Google’s license to allow deployment of GMaps only on non-GPS devices unless Google met additional technical conditions and/or paid more.

    The geodata companies will be trying to extract revenue from a potentially very lucrative business (interactive maps on GPS-enabled cellphones) while protecting their current revenues from per-GPS device licenses.

  8. Ed, agreed, but that would explain the terms of use of Google Maps, not the terms of use of a platform like that of the iPhone. The iPhone SDK is agnostic when it comes to data, surely? Restrictions on the use of data should come with the data, not with the device, no?

  9. I think that you will see AT&T market their own GPS navigation product for the iPhone for an added monthly fee. I can’t find where, but it was reported that AT&T was “working with Apple” to develop navigation software. I think that you’ll find this clause not to be so benign, but only time will tell.

  10. Stefan,

    I’m now heading into pure speculation, but perhaps limitations on the use of the iPhone SDK to prevent it’s use as a real-time GPS navigation device was the price for certain international geodata companies to allow use of their data with GMaps for iPhone. Apple and Google have certainly been working closely together, so it’s not hard to imagine those strategic partners co-operating to avoid normal GPS device fees for the iPhone.

  11. Hey you guys have a lot of info to give and share BUT for someone who is not up to date on these things, CAN i use the iphone as a gps (as att charges 10.00 extra a month) will i get turn by turn gps like say a tomtom or should i take this back and get a cheaper phone and buy a tomtom/garmin?


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