The Web has traditionally supported "free" products and services through advertising.
Take our ads, we'll give it to you. (That's how we do it here, come to think of it.)
Every few years vendors move toward making this true for hardware as well as content and software. It happens as hardware costs fall to a few hundred dollars, and there are many phones and tablets now hitting that mark.
The problem is that, as this point approaches, "aggressive" ad networks (some will read that as spammers) are the first to hit the line, which tends to discredit the whole exercise.
That's an issue a mobile security outfit called Looking claims to address through voluntary guidelines just announced on its web site. The guidelines were issued ahead of a White House meeting seeking a "consensus" about Internet privacy scheduled for Thursday.
The problem with any self-regulation is that not all ad networks will follow it.
We're already seeing this in the "free app" market, where products that cost just a few dollars in paid versions download enough ads and upload enough data to drain a phone's battery in just 90 minutes.
Why should a company like Apperhand, which has been fighting the security industry for months,claiming its SDK is merely an "aggressive" ad network (even though it gives the ad network control of your mobile device through code called Plankton first found a year ago) surrender what it considers it market advantages because someone said please?
The security firms have no power to enforce their demands, or their guidelines. Once government gets involved, of course, we're in the old game of cops-and-robbers, the kind robbers often use anti-government rhetoric to game.
The question then becomes, does Google? Does Amazon? If you're going to be giving away $200 worth of hardware, you have to be able to control the ad infrastructure that results. Google faced this question in February and blinked, refusing to pull Apperhand's code from its Android market.
Until Google and Amazon gain more control over their app stores, and push out third-party advertising apps that seize control of user devices, it will be impossible to produce an ad-supported smartphone.
Advantage, Apple (AAPL).