The biggest problems with BlackBerry's concept of net neutrality

Shane Schick

Maybe John Chen would benefit from learning what it's like to make a cross-platform app. 

The CEO of BlackBerry raised eyebrows recently with an open letter sent to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, John Thune, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Fred Upton, and others. He makes an unusual argument that definitions of "net neutrality"--the notion that Internet traffic should be treated equal regardless of its source or user--be extended to mobile apps and games. He specifically cites the fact that BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use the BBM service, whereas Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple's iMessage messaging service.

"If we are truly to have an open internet, policymakers should demand openness not just at the traffic/transport layer, but also at the content/applications layer of the ecosystem. Banning carriers from discriminating but allowing content and applications providers to continue doing so will solve nothing," Chen writes. "Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet."

Even a casual observer of BlackBerry's recent fortunes will recognize the self-serving nature of this particular manifesto. BlackBerry, which has done everything from "port-a-thons" to practically begging for developers to support BB10, now wants to force the issue. Even as the company's hardware business has endured major declines, BBM has been a rare bright spot in its portfolio, but of course without a choice of messaging apps, its long-term growth may be limited. 

Although it's possible (and even likely) that Chen's letter will be laughed out of the U.S. public sector, it's worth considering the ramifications of "app neutrality," for lack of a better world. Many app developers would probably admit they are not at all neutral when it comes to platforms because they simply have no other choice: They have to go to where there is money, users and preferably both. Many do, in fact, offer cross-platform versions as part of a staged rollout, but the process often involves considerable testing, not to mention working through the various app store submission and approvals processes. The industry isn't really set up very well today to support app neutrality, even in the unlikely event it was mandated. 

While the net neutrality debate has largely been a face-off between large telecommunications carriers or ISPs vs. big content and search companies like Google or Facebook, app neutrality would be a fight between the likes of BlackBerry and untold numbers of one-person shops or small studios who might lack the resources to guarantee cross-platform availability. Of course, Chen is not really aiming at that crowd but at Apple, which, with things like iMessage and Maps, is kind of like an enormous app developer in its own right. It doesn't seem fair to drag everyone else into this particular fight. 

Finally, there's cross-platform, and then there's "all-platform," which might be impossible to enforce. Sure, legislate that all apps be delivered for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. But what about Tizen? HTML5? There are probably a few Symbian users out there somewhere. And who knows what kind of new platforms might develop in an age of wearable devices and the Internet of Things? 

John Chen is asking lawmakers for a truly open Internet. All he's really doing, however, is opening an uncontrollable can of worms.--Shane