The NextBus Flap: A Tilted Playing Field for iPhone Apps? (update)
Update (Aug. 19, 3:15 p.m.): SF Appeal has more or less wrapped this story of lameness up. MTA and Apple have both told NBIS to take a hike, and don’t let the door hit ya … Oh, and now that Routesy is live once again, we’ll be finishing up our review and posting it soon. It was cut short as this whole brouhaha went down.
Original post (July 10): Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, Ken Schmier and Alex Orloff at NextBus Information Systems (NBIS) got in a fight with Steven Peterson of Routesy. Who are these people? What’s NBIS? Where’s my bus? Good questions.
So, here it goes. We’ve all seen the bus-arrival data flashing at us from bus shelters across town; many of you have probably gotten it on your cellphone. But the matter of who owns this data and who can use it recently became a hot debate when Peterson, the developer of the iPhone app Routesy, got into a disagreement with NBIS, the company that claims to have rights to that sometimes-accurate information flashing at you from the bus stop and on the interwebs.
Oh, and when we say “NBIS,” that is not the same thing as NextBus, Inc.
NextBus, Inc. = Michael Smith, whom we interviewed in March, and other engineers and problem-solvers who work to fix things if something goes wonky with the prediction data. The engineering know-how and software for this service is owned by NextBus, Inc., though the hardware (the signs in the bus shelters) is owned by the SF Municipal Transit Agency (Muni, DPT, and more!).
NBIS = Ken Schmier and Alex Orloff, who claim they have a years-old contract allowing them to make money off the prediction data provided and distributed byNextBus, Inc.
NBIS says this data is theirs to license and, therefore, to capitalize on. That means developers can’t go taking it willy-nilly for iPhone apps unless they strike a deal with these guys. But wait, Muni says that’s preposterous, and that they own the data (thereby making it public). Peterson just wants to use the damn data for Routesy, a bus-arrival-time iPhone app he designed that is apparently one-billion-and-a-half times more user-friendly than the NextBus website (which is actually fine, as far as this BlackBerry user is concerned). NBIS, meanwhile, sought and was granted a shutdown of the app from Apple, the oh-so-awesome distributor of life-changing apps via its App Store.
To complicate matters further (because, well, why the hell not?), iCommute, another iPhone application that also uses NextBus data, has successfully entered an agreement with NBIS. This means iCommute was able to strike a favorable deal with NBIS to license the data, and can therefore use the data for their application. Peterson, citing iffy documentation of the NBIS claim of ownership over the data, has been unwilling to enter into a similar agreement with them.
Kelly Beener at iCommute, as well as Orloff and Schmier, told Muni Diaries that the royalty of $1 per application sold was part of the terms of the agreement. They did not disclose any additional terms and conditions. But Peterson, citing emails from NBIS, said he was quoted a licensing fee in the neighborhood of “tens of thousands of dollars” per month.
Some of you may have noticed some goings-on in the news (SF Appeal and SF Weekly, to name a few), as well as in the Twitter realm, about this issue. As it continues to simmer at a low boil (for now), I certainly don’t expect everything to be hunky-dory. Muni might have asserted that the data is theirs (and by extension, the public’s), but I’d be very surprised if NBIS went off quietly into the night.
This important issue could be described with any number of cliches: a David-and-Goliath throwdown, a dirty-capitalists-versus-small-town-app-developer fight, or just a plain-old legal mess. Though much has been made over the “well, whose data is it??” issue, I think it boils down to the question of access and ownership: Sure, Muni has asserted ownership of that data, but NextBus, Inc., still generates this data for the bus stop marquees, its own website, and mobile apps. And, try as I might, it’s still hard for me to figure out how and why NBIS fits into this picture of ownership. There’s some sort of mind-fucky distinction between all these realms, which is partially why it’s hard to think this will end neatly.
The bottom line is that any barrier to accessing technology like public-transit arrival and prediction information should be low enough to create a level playing field. It doesn’t have to be free, though that would be nice. Ultimately, we’re talking about access to “public” information. Unless of course, you disagree (and some seriously do) that the information is public. (Told you it was mind-fucky, didn’t we?)
A one-dollar royalty on every couple dollars made by apps like Routesy and iCommute seems reasonable. I certainly wouldn’t want the brains behind the technology (which sounds like NextBus, Inc., to us) to get the shaft. But tens of thousands of dollars in up-front, pay-to-play money? Not so much. And who is entitled to the $1? Damned if I know, and it’s probably going to involve a lot of lawyers to help make that decision.
I wish iCommute, Routesy, and every other app developer in the pond the best of luck. Some of you out there are small-time programmers who thought an app for x, y, or z would be pretty cool. As a day-jobber myself, I understand what it’s like to have a pet project you really hope will have a positive impact on people in the long run. And I couldn’t imagine Muni Diaries turning into a big legal mess, when all it started as was something kind of cool to do on the side.
Stay tuned …
Full disclosure: Muni Diaries has reviewed the iCommute app. And if Routesy hadn’t been yanked offline, we’d have our review of it posted as well. For now, we eagerly await its return.