Superstition, Rumour and iPhone Development Agreements

A couple of rumours have come to my attention recently — both of them nonsense. At first glance, they’re completely unrelated, but musing on their popularity despite being false, I noticed some common threads, and wanted to write something about it, particularly since it links a few of my interests together, and I happen to be in possession of evidence regarding one of them.

The first rumour was mentioned in this AP report:

The Egyptian government has sought to dispel rumours that a mobile phone text message “from unknown foreign quarters” is spreading around the country and killing those who receive it.

This is kinda sad, on multiple levels. It’s sad because it’s so flagrantly nonsense yet has spread widely enough to require official denunciationfootnote 1. It’s sad because the “foreign quarters” bit points to it being a xenophobic ploy, that whoever started the rumour hoped to use it to stoke fear of “foreigners”. It’s sad that someone gets away with just passing off Ring as fact.

The second rumour, which I’m not going to link to (because I’m pretty sure it’s at least in part intentional linkbaitfootnote 2) is very different. A technology blog asserts that Apple is changing its contract terms with iPhone developers (such as, yes, Wooji Juice) that would screw said developers by a) allowing 90-days no-questions-asked refunds, and then b) charging developers 100% retail price for those refunds, leaving developers 30% out-of-pocket; and furthermore, rushing these contract changes through. Apparently, we’re all going to be crushed by users running out and then claiming their refund on day 89 — especially for games, playing them until they’ve finished/are bored.

This news report is equally as full of nonsense as the first, but is equally persistent. I’ve had friends ask me about it. I’ve had it crop up on private discussion forums and public websites. I’ve seen it voted to the front page of ‘social news’ sites, repeatedly — even long after it’s been disproved.

Here are the facts, from my vantagepoint of having both the old contract and the new contract, and Wooji Juice spreadsheets covering about 9 months of App Store sales:

  • There is no change, “rushed” or otherwise. The “new” clause is a year old. It has always been there, since before the App Store opened.
  • The contract clause itself does not give customers 90-days no-questions-asked refundsfootnote 3.
  • The EULA for App Store applications states all sales are final, no refunds are given.
  • In practice, Apple has given out refunds, at their own discretion, to folks with a good reason for asking.
  • Out of thousands of customers since the App Store openedfootnote 4, only four people have claimed refunds of Wooji Juice appsfootnote 5.
  • On each of those four occasions, Apple claimed back only the 70% cut that they gave to us in the first place, not the 100% claimed by the fearmongering article. So we neither gained nor lost money when the sale was cancelled — as it should be.
  • The clause does permit Apple to claim 100% back from a developer in certain, specific circumstances, and always has done. However, these circumstances are very rare, rare enough that I’ve never even heard of it happening.

So, now we’ve established this is just another storm in a teacup. What’s the common ground here?

Rumour

In each case, we have a nonsense rumour, that gets passed on anyway. Some of it is just down to lazy no-fact-checking “journalism”. But it also gets passed on through the population (as opposed to the media) because a certain proportion of the population wants it to be true. Sadly, xenophobia is alive and well in the world, so it’s easy to get a rise out of people by whipping up fears about “foreigners” (certain newspapers I could mention have been thriving off this for years).

Similarly, rumours about Apple — or Microsoft — always get more traction than those about, say, Sandisk, whom noone really has strong feelings about. Rumours spread like wildfire if they target an ethic or social group, company, country, political party etc about which people have a vague, nebulous dislike or sense of uneasefootnote 6, or anywhere you have strong competition between two groups (“us vs them”).

Also, both rumours deal with something complex and arcane yet with impact on our daily lives, that most people don’t really understand; in one case technology, in the other the law.

The thing that’s interesting to me is how these complex aspects of the modern world fall into the realm of superstition and witchcraft for most people. As I am somewhat on the “inside” as regards technology, but on the “outside” as regards the law, it’s particularly interesting to me because I can see both sides of it and draw parallels between my own views on law and other people’s views on technology.

Superstition

People know that sometimes they get reception and sometimes they don’t, but it’s not really obvious when or where. The signal-strength meter on a phone only measures certain aspects of the signal, so it’s not an accurate measurement of how reliable or how clear your conversations will be. This sort of thing leads to apophenia and supersition. It’s interesting to compare the data with the perception. Pacing about trying to get the best signal, swapping tips on eking out extra minutes of battery life, dangling little charms off their phones.

Even the industry itself takes a cargo-cult approach: the iPhone was successful. The (original) iPhone was a glossy black “candybar” design with a metal shell and minimal front-panel buttons. Ergo every manufacturer rushed to bring out their own glossy black candybar phone with a metal shell and minimal buttons. Of course, as with other cargo cults, none of them get the results they desire, no matter how closely they copy the surface details.

The law, to most people, has now become like this. Or like the weather: It just happens. Rain falls. People get sued. Noone really understands whyfootnote 7. You can make general predictions, but when you get down to the specifics you can be horribly wrong.

At best, it’s random; at worst, it seems like the work of malevolent demons. No wonder people are so superstitious about it. We go to the witch doctor and offer up sacrifices in the hope that the powerful forces are appeased. We place signs of protection upon our work, but really, if dark forces want to make demons fly out of your nose, they can. No wonder most people give up trying to understand — which is why we see the law filled with examples of supersitious, almost fetishistic behaviour: people sealing their work up and mailing it to themselves, offering up entreaties and all sorts of other bizarre behaviour. It’s like referring to the Fae as The Good Folk, or refraining from mentioning … you know who by name. It’s the same with newspapers reflexively prefixing “allegedly” and “reportedly” for fear of defamation suits.

You know, I don’t really have a point to this.

I just thought it was interesting. Your milage may vary. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

1. Which, you know… isn’t exactly effective when you’re dealing with governments. People often have a tendency to assume that if the goverment is denying it, it’s probably true…

2. That age-old favourite, “Rile the Apple folks to kick pageviews up a notch”

3. Wooji Juice offers 60-day no-questions-asked refunds on Voluminous (which we sell directly from our website), because we believe it’s good customer-service practice to do so. We can’t offer this on iPhone applications because we have to play by Apple’s rules, and Apple’s rules officially prohibit refunds.

4. Figures measured since Apple started issuing daily sales reports, on 28th July 2008

5. We don’t know why, because we don’t get given a reason, but I suspect due to compatibility (eg not checking the system requirements, and finding out too late that you need Mac OS X Leopard to use Presentation Remote). If you’re one of those four, and happen to be reading this, please let us know. :)

6. Whether justified or not.

7. If you think it’s rational and predictable, please attempt to explain the SCO suit to your grandmother.

8. There is no footnote 8.