In the last months, there have been a couple of high-profile cases where companies have denounced the behavior of Apple and its operation of the App Store.
Let’s image a hypothetical scenario:
Microsoft announces a change in their operating system, Windows: starting with the next version, all applications need to be installed using the Microsoft Store. Distributing Windows software by copying/sharing .exe and compressed files is not allowed anymore, and the operating system will prohibit such installations of software. Furthermore, developers who monetize their software will need to pay Microsoft a 30% fee.
If Microsoft would have made such a decision back in the day, the outrage would have been of epic proportions. The Department of Justice would have probably won its anti-trust case of 1999. Having Microsoft do something like that would have been outrageous, yet a smaller company managed to do just that in 2008.
What is the value of the App store?
When Apple introduced the App Store in 2008, the concept made sense.
For the consumer: Protection against malware
Everyone knew that Windows’ way of distributing software (by floppy disks/CDs and copying installation files offline) was the perfect ground to distribute malware. The App Store promised to be a security gateway, where Apple checked that every application was developed in a secure way.
For the consumer: Protects the user experience
By forcing developers to adhere to basic usability principles, the App Store also made sure that applications didn’t suck too much. Adhering to minimal UI principles and requirements enforced a minimal level of user experience quality.
For the developer: discoverability
Developers publishing on the App Store could leverage the trustworthiness of the store. That meant, users were more willing to install an unknown app because they trusted the quality checks of the App Store. Also, being in the App Store gave the developer discoverability, so people exploring the App Store could find your app, try it out easily, and recommend it to their friends.
For the developer: distribution
Distributing software in the past was hard. You either had to produce and distribute disks/CDs, or get users to visit your website and download an installer. You also had the problem of users distributing installers offline (such as in USB sticks), which meant older versions of your code being spread around. The App Store solved all these problems by providing a centralized way to distribute your code and made updating much easier.
All of that sounds like a pretty good deal, huh? And it was. For an underdog company as Apple was back in 2008, the App Store was a great innovation to secure, distribute and discover software.
So what is the problem now in 2020?
The problem is that Apple is now at a dominant market position, similar to what Microsoft was back in 1998. In the same way that no one would have allowed Microsoft to be a gatekeeper for the distribution of software in PCs, we must not allow Apple to be the gatekeeper for mobile software. Their market dominance is too powerful to allow that. I have suffered myself the wrath of the App Store processes (during 2015-2016, I developed ObjC/Swift apps for 2 startups):
- A draconian approval process with obscure rules that get interpreted in a way which is most beneficial for Apple. And sometimes they can get very creative with those interpretations.
- Lengthy review processes that take days to complete.
- Discoverability of apps is currently close to zero. The App Store is not helping you become the next best thing.
- Apple’s crack down on external monetization strategies hampers pricing innovation and makes some new pricing models completely impossible.
- Apple’s unilateral App Store decisions can literally bring a whole startup down if their app is pulled out of the store.
Apple cannot continue being the gatekeeper, coercing everybody into adhering to rules which are only good for themselves as a platform company. They are too big for that.
I believe the App Store needs to evolve in the following two ways:
- Implement a federation model: in jurisdictions whose values are not consistent with democratic values, and Apple is required to enforce policies which are unpopular in the west. The enforcement of such rules must be done outside the scope of the Apple company, and be delegated to a local organization. Global business will always require local compliance, and we need to understand and accept that no company can be compliant in all jurisdictions unless they are willing to adapt to local requirements. In the same way that Microsoft established a China region through a joint-venture with 21Vianet, the App Store should implement a federation model where local companies / JVs act as the ultimate liaison with local laws.
- Regulate the principles for platform companies: platform companies with a monopolistic power like Apple must adhere to monetization principles that protect fairness and promote innovation. Either the industry proves that it can regulate itself and behaves as a good citizen, or the government will have to step in and define ‘rules of the game’. This could mean setting some boundaries to the fees companies can charge, and giving developers more freedom to develop monetization models outside the platform (instead of entirely prohibiting them as Apple does today).