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
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.
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.