Resolved: Apple is right to curate the App Store

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There’s a brewing controversy about Apple’s right to exclude iPhone apps from its App Store. People have gone so far as to threaten to never write iPhone apps or even to draw parallels between Apple and the Nazis.

So what’s to be done? Is it actually an option for Apple, Inc., today to declare its App Store a free-for-all zone? If you were the CEO of Apple, with the weight of a $132 billion public company on your shoulders, would you open up the Store to allcomers?

If you open up, what would you gain? Obviously, more developers would presumably write more apps, and some of those apps might become popular thereby enhancing the value of the iPhone platform, which in turn would attract more developers and ultimately more users, who then would buy more hardware (iPhones), more apps (App Store), more media (iTunes Store) and perhaps more Macs. Everyone gains. Right? Not quite.

What is a platform anyway?

That assumes the primary (or perhaps the only) accelerators of a platform like the iPhone is the developers. Developers are incredibly important to any platform but if developers alone could create and sustain a platform, we’d all be using Linux on our desktops.

I previously outlined the 10 factors that make the iPhone the most coveted consumer electronics device in recent memory. While some of those factors are more consequential than others, it’s the balanced integration of all of them that creates the iPhone phenomenon.

In other words, it may not matter how many developers a platform has, if the platform owner, for example, doesn’t have the ability to negotiate favorable terms with distributors or component manufacturers, or if it doesn’t have control of the principal underlying technologies, or if it doesn’t have an effective method of extracting profit out of the flow of activity on its platform. A platform is more than throwing an SDK against the proverbial wall of developers and hoping something sticks. A platform, above all, needs to be curated.

Apple as curator

Whether at an exhibit in a museum or a “Top Ten Movies of 2008″ website, collections are by definition curated: some items get in, some don’t. We all understand this even when we disagree with the selections or the criteria with which they were culled. We accept and welcome the curatorship, because without curatorship collections quickly become uninteresting and often meaningless. While virtually all news is freely available on the Internet, we still prefer the editorial judgement of our local news outlet, the New York Times or our favorite bloggers. We do have our own opinions, but we also put a high value on editorial and curatorial judgement.

If we then accept the inevitability and desirability of curatorship in the creation and sustenance of a platform, perhaps the remaining question is not whether Apple should be able to exclude apps from the Store, but why and how.

The unwritten rules

Some would like all the curatorial considerations to be clearly written out. For anyone who has negotiated even a semi-complicated contract that’s an impossible goal. Even when millions of dollars are at stake business parties routinely agree to terms like “reasonable” or “parties will make best efforts” and so on. When promises and obligations are rigidly specified, they necessarily become brittle, and in most cases actually counterproductive. No one, not even Apple, knows what apps might possibly become available in the future and what potential technical, operational, legal and financial risks they may pose to Apple, its partners and users. Judgement has to be rendered contextually against all of the benefits and risks the platform owner may see at the time.

The problem for outsiders is that they don’t always know what all the considerations are for any given curatorial judgement Apple has to make for any specific app. For example, what if Apple is planning to introduce a specific app soon; should it be required to spell it out in its “acceptable apps” policy in advance? What if another iPhone developer has already contacted Apple under an NDA about an app it is developing; should everyone else, including that developer’s competitors, get a public forewarning? What if Apple is aware of certain network carrier developments that it’s not allowed to share with the rest of its platform community? What if certain apps would operationally stretch certain aspects of its platform before Apple is ready to remedy it as it might be planning? What if Apple is planning to upgrade or deprecate certain device capabilities in an upcoming release? Needless to say, the matrix of likely considerations is huge.

It’s a secret

Many, including some iPhone developers, accuse Apple of being too secretive and point to that secrecy as the culprit in Apple’s failure to communicate. While Apple is clearly secretive, there are no public studies to show that product-plan secrecy has in any substantial way worked to its disadvantage. Despite all those urging Apple to let its employees blog freely, for example, it’s not that difficult to show that Apple’s secrecy is a fundamental part of its success in marketing and general competitiveness.

So much so that its chief competitor at large, Microsoft, has begun to emulate it even in the enterprise arena. Many Microsoft employees do blog publicly, but try getting concrete or actionable information about its plans for the Oslo initiative, cloud computing or mobile device plans, for instance. Similarly, Google’s Android is contrasted against the iPhone as the “open” platform. And yet when it was strategically important for the platform owner, Google was perfectly capable of withholding SDK information from most of its developers while working closely with a select few. Also, when developing the “open” Chrome browser platform, “We couldn’t be engaged in the WebKit community without being involved with keeping Chrome a secret,” confesses Google developer Darin Fisher. Commercial entities must hold secrets and Apple is no exception.

Hara-kiri? Not at Cupertino

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From its meandering non-explanations of a business plan for WebObjects a decade ago to missing security-update details of late, a certain level of verbosity has been lacking in Apple’s communications with its developer and user communities. That much is given. The question is whether that is unbridled arrogance or something else. Clearly, Apple doesn’t always like to be guided by its critics and in many cases that may be a good thing. If Apple had given into the thundering chorus of critics goading it to “open up” the iTunes/iPod/iTMS trio to third parties (WMA) and license its own DRM (FairPlay), we’d surely not be looking at a company whose market cap has grown an additional $100 billion since then. Indeed, there’d likely be no iPhone to kvetch about today.

Slippery slope?

There’s a knee-jerk reaction among the Apple commentators in quickly declaring controversies as the inevitable beginnings of a slippery slope. Some asked if the rejection of the Podcaster app is Apple’s declaration of its blanket non-compete intentions or if this could eventually evolve into requiring all Mac OS X desktop apps to be code-signed and sold solely through the App Store. Apparently, Apple cannot please everyone.

At the end of the day, people either trust the platform vendor, or they don’t. Surely, we can never be really certain just in what ways Google or Bank of America or Blue Shield can possibly make use of our secrets. They obviously have the means to abuse them, but they can only do it at the ultimate certainty of destroying their own platforms. Once we divest our trust out of their platforms, they are commercially worthless. In the end, that’s the only “guarantee” that we have and the only “motivator” for the vendors to behave.

Some developers demand Apple try to communicate better, lest they assume the worst of the platform vendor. While that sounds plenty reasonable at face value, given the curatorial demands on the fledgling state of the App Store platform and Apple’s overall reliance on product-plan secrecy, we shouldn’t realistically expect Apple to “open up” anytime soon.

21 thoughts on “Resolved: Apple is right to curate the App Store

  1. I have a different take on this situation. The App Store is, by no means, perfect, but it’s not incredibly limited either.

    I come from the old-school Palm and Windows Mobile world, and let me just say how much nicer it is to have a one-stop, reliable shop for device software. Even though I could install any darn thing I wanted, it was a loosing battle for me. I had to worry about PC viruses, the app breaking my device, and a host of other problems. I had to hunt down certain things I wanted on the palm, and hope that Google took me to a good site, then navigate each site’s individual and sometimes confusing UI. Download, unzip, install, and hope the software is what it says it is. With the app store, I can search for the functionality I want on my device, download a free version of what comes up, and decide if I like it or not. I can even look at any one of several review apps available for the iPhone, if I want to spend money on something. After all is said and done, I’d have spent a few hours on palm/wm per app I end up using, when I spend a few minutes on the iPhone per kept app. Apple controls the software that goes into the App Store to keep it good (letting the fart apps into the store was, in my opinion, a mistake), so why not let them.

    Despite the quality of the store and/or experience, though, what it boils down to is this- if you don’t like it, don’t buy the iPhone or it’s apps. Many people like the platform despite it’s shortcomings. Many people like many things despite their shortcomings. Developers will continue to develop programs for the iPhone, and people will continue to buy them. If you don’t want to be a part of it, nobody’s going to water-board you into assimilation.

    (note about searching for software for Palm/WM- before anyone negatively comments on my description of how finding software for one of these devices goes down, note that I had nearly six hours daily in the afternoon to find the best stuff for my still very new Palm, and later my WM device. I now have very little time (an hour a day of free time, tops), and I have an easier time on the iPhone. My kid sister, who still couldn’t navigate her way around the Palm/WM world, can use the iPhone efficiently. My Dad, who is a very computer-literate person (it’s his job), doesn’t even mess with the Palm software ecosystem (it’s all he uses), but he found it quick and easy to get software for the iPhone. Other family, friends, ect are all the same way.)

    • You’re right. Switchers to Mac/iPhone ecosystems often become very loyal supporters of their new platform precisely because they were keenly aware of what a mess some of the other platforms they came from were. Once one understands the value of the trade-offs Apple has made, it becomes easy to appreciate the value.

  2. Apple gets my vote on this issue.

    The iPhone is so new that we have no idea what Apple has planned for it, nor how the ecosystem will develop and integrate with other devices.

    It is pure and utter ARROGANCE for developers to demand that they become de facto owners of the platform. And thus the dictators of its future progression and direction.

    If the quality of third party apps way exceeded those made by Apple they may have a case. But they don’t and likely won’t in the near future either.

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  4. Apple is entirely correct.

    Apple must have the flexibility to determine what goes into the App store.

    Podcaster broke 3 of the SDK’s rules. It’s developer has no grounds to protest.

    The App Store must be the only way to obtain Apps for the iPhone 3G. It is a proprietary system. It maintains stability and prevents malware. It obviously is fantastic.

    If you want to install an app outside of the Apple ecosystem, you can jailbreak the iPhone. But that is your risk to take, not Apple’s.

    The App Store is highly successful. One reason is the limitations on what developers can do.

    If a developer does not want the limitations, then go ahead, develop for any other competitor – Windows Mobile, Palm, Nokia, Android, etc. The sky is the limit. And good riddance. There will be many other successful developers ahead of you developing for the App store.

  5. I think there is a slippery slope, not in the sense of the threat of a sudden betrayal, more in the sense of a slow degeneration. When you own a large and well trusted platform the seduction is immense to leverage your market power in order to get easy revenues at the expense of consumers.

    My work is in an environment with lots of established and (worse!) state owned companies. I experience situations where citizens and consumers receive bad performance on a daily basis. When analysing this the main reason appear to be suppliers are simply in the position they can afford bad performance because consumers have no choice.

    The whole iPhone revolution was possible because (apparently) existing suppliers were too much relying on easy revenue, while ignoring (hidden) consumer benefits. Then a visionary madman appeared who was able to leverage these hidden consumer benefits. He wasn’t stopped by Nokia or Samsung market protection.
    I hope very much the current iPhone market protection won’t be strong enough to stop future technology revolutions either.

  6. Podcaster provides an alternative distribution mechanism to iTunes for podcasts. If Apple lets Podcaster onto the App Store then companies with deep pockets, like Amazon, will submit apps that access their music and video stores and will sue Apple when they are rejected. Even if Apple successfully defends the rejection the court may impose restrictions on what Apple can reject. Far better for Apple (and cheaper) to reject Podcaster.

  7. It seems to me that Apple is concerned about allowing ordinary users to download podcasts which may contain any sort of malicious material. Users who unthinkingly download podcasts from the iTunes Music Store may not hesitate to do so from ‘Bob’s Bait and Switch Blog’ without perceiving a threat. When Bob’s malware sends their financial or personal data to russian mobsters, the headline will not read “Virus Plagues Podcaster Users” but “iPhone Virus Plagues Apple Customers.”

  8. Marc: “apps to be synced to the iPhone without passing through the App Store”

    Not happening.

    That would the same as a free-for-all zone. The iPhone is not, and has never been promoted as, a general purpose computing platform. It’s more like an appliance than a PC.

  9. “Is it actually an option for Apple, Inc., today to declare its App Store a free-for-all zone?”

    No, it isn’t. But it is an option for Apple to allow apps to be synced to the iPhone without passing through the App Store. That way, they could market the App Store as “the best of the best” or “apps that are certified by Apple to work on iPhone”, and then the ecosystem could have the openness that makes the iPhone a true “platform”.

    Simple solution, and it would benefit everyone.

  10. Jayme:

    please explain to me, how apple is going to make money, or get a carrier to carry it’s phone, if there are apps to circumvent using any part of the network they charge for? Do you get what i’m saying?

    do you also not understand how a song, just cause it’s freely available on the internet, doesn’t belong to you?

    i***.

  11. Ken:

    apples mobile OS market share will surpass microsoft’s own in the coming months. Viable? are you kidding? You do know apple will surpass windows mobile this year right? As in the OS by big bad MS that’s been out for an eternity and still blows? (i have only used one windows mobile 6 device to be fair, but i’ve returned every windows mobile 5 unit i’ve ever had)

    and people saying “this is unacceptable” like peter, are just as stupid. Dropped calls are “unacceptable” Promising a feature, such as sms and not delivering, that’s unacceptable. This is their Store, your opting into use it. Your cartman consumerism is what’s unacceptable.

    it’s like the genuine windows certification. It’s not new. Your just stupid. I’m in the same boat, i really really want orb. I will jailbreak for it. They won’t release it, so i’m waiting.

    It’s orb’s prog tho, and apples store, so i’m gonna have to wait. (see how hard that was)

    Grow up, a****s, or make your own iphone. I’m just sick of you all bitching about what also happens to be your fave piece of technology, you hypocritical stupid don’t even know what you want ******.

  12. Actually, I have no problem with Apple “curating” it’s own App Store. After all, it’s their store and they have every right to decide what goes in and what doesn’t.

    The problem is, for broad distribution, the App Store is the only available game.

    Suppose I have an application that was rejected by Apple for inclusion in the App Store. I have two choices:

    1. Release the app “Ad hoc” and see how long it takes me to sell 100 copies. Then come back to Apple and say, “See? I have 100 people who want my app! How about now?” There’s no guarantee that Apple will do anything, of course, but it’s a possibility.
    2. Go the jailbreak route. I can at least distribute my app to as many people as will buy it, but the market is much smaller.

    This is unacceptable. Apple needs to allow developers to distribute their own applications.

  13. You talk about the App Store as if its a museum and how it needs to be curated, but its not a museum its a store. It is the actual device that will have the collection of Apps on it that will need to be curated and as I am the owner of said device I feel that I should be the one to curate it. What apple is doing is in the long run bad for their business since it is bad for innovation which is what made the iPhone so popular in the first place.

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  15. I think you make this way too much about the platform as a whole, which it isn’t primarily in my opinion. The iphone platform could still continue to exist, at least for a while, even without valuable apps in the app store. However for developers to develop valuable apps, and investors to fund them, they have to be able to say with some certainty that there app will be distributed. Because apple is not the only company who has to make money, others do too.
    About “Right to curate” as in a museum exhibit: I think this would be acceptable if the app store would be the primary means of distribution for apps endorsed/found good by apple, if there weren another viable distribution method. (no ad-hoc doesn’t count)
    I think what apple (and maybe some designers too?) fail to understand is, that what made personal computers big, wasn’t the manufacturer choosing which apps were ok, and which were not, but the fact that everybody could run anything they wanted. If they don’t get this sooner or later the iphone will only be remembered as a temporary episode.

  16. I just see it as a right of first refusal issue. If Apple sees something that is stepping on it’s toes or undermine it’s iTunes store cashflow, it will stop it.

    Obviously there isn’t quality control on the apps or else “I am Rich” would never have made it though.

    There has be be a happy medium between full blown accessibility a la Microsoft and what they’re doing now however. They just need to find it.

  17. “At the end of the day, people either trust the platform vendor, or they don’t. ”

    And this kind of arbitrary action makes everyone trust the platform vendor a lot less. Long term this kind of capricious action will not encourage developers to target the platform, and over the next few years that’s exactly what Apple needs to become a viable phone OS.

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  19. The actual problem with Apple is that any news about “anything that is wrong with Apple is a sure page clicker”!

    Congratulations for being one of the few places to see both sides of the question.

    Apple, as a public company, is obliged by law –as its primary objective– to produce wellfare for its shareholders. So, if forbidding the app makes shareholders richer… Apple is “just following the law”.
    I know it sounds extremist but some people is suing Apple for not providing “3G as advertised”. So –as you posted– nobody really knows what considerationd are being taking within the company.

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