Saturday, June 5, 2010

Response: Time for Apple to open up the iPhone

Jason Snell's article "Time for Apple to open up the iPhone" made me start wondering what exactly would happen if Apple DID allow apps to be installed from outside the app store. (Note: I'm leaving web apps out of the equation.) First, I want to say that I do think it would solve a few problems. Developers would be happy, no doubt about it. Knowing your application can be rejected is a scary thing, especially if it's going to take many hours to create. It would also open up the doors to all those apps that Apple has no interested in being associated with. That sounds like a sweet deal, right? Happy devs, and more choice for consumers …what's not to like?

Here's where the bad starts to roll in, and by roll, I mean snowball. Two immediate consequences would be malware and increased piracy. Not insignificant issues, but if you've read any forum posts on this subject you'll understand why I'm just laying those topics aside. They are obvious, and really not that important to my argument. The first real trouble I see has to do with Apple's entry barrier to the app store. Anyone can download the iPhone SDK and create applications, but you can't put them up for sale unless you pay Apple $99 for the privilege. This is a good thing! It allows anyone who wants to learn how to develop for the iPhone to do so at no cost to them, and it keeps tons of worthless and buggy apps out of the app store. Opening up the iPhone to third party installs would immediately cast a shadow over the app store. Not only would developers not have to pay to play any more, they wouldn't have to fork over 30% of every sale to Apple either. While the majority of smaller devs probably don't mind Apple taking a chunk of their profit in exchange for exposure and no-hassle money transactions, larger companies (with products that need no exposure) may decide to jump ship entirely. It would also open a window for third-party hosting companies without app restrictions to pop up and undercut Apple. If that happened, the genie would be out of the bottle. The app store would no longer be THE place to find apps, and that means the optional Android-like "Install third party apps" checkbox probably wouldn't feel optional for long.

Every advantage Apple's app store provides the iPhone is directly tied to their control over the whole widget. Take that control away and you've essentially got Android (open, with no security or quality assurance). Each model is different, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Weigh the odds and pick your poison.


  1. “and it keeps tons of worthless and buggy apps out of the app store”

    does it?

  2. Oh, there's no argument that the app store has it's share of crap …but there's no doubt in my mind that it'd be MUCH worse if you didn't have to fork over the $100 to upload. Plus Apple would have to hire more app screeners to keep up with the flood!

  3. The solution to the app store rejection thing is simple: apple needs to come up with a preauthorization scheme. For a fee, say $50 an app you submit to apple a requirements/design doc describing the app, functionality, mock-ups. Apple responds with comments and a go/no go decision with caveat that they can still reject if you deviate from you plan (private apis etc). They also need a premier developer category for say 3000$ per year who are entitled to 24 hr turn around on approvals/updates, some number of pre approvals, etc

  4. Good ideas, especially the one about the premium account. I'd say it could even be less than $50 for a simple certificate of approval.

  5. The Mac OS has done fine all these years without an app store, as has Windows. Yes, both platforms have malware and piracy, and both have apps of poor quality. But both platforms also have great apps, apps that offer free trial periods, apps that extend their operating systems in ways that Apple and Microsoft hadn't anticipated, apps that responsibly use private API's to provide functionality they wouldn't otherwise be able to provide, and apps that compete with the interests of Apple and Microsoft without risk of being locked out of the platform.

    The app store is a great distribution mechanism. But it being the only distribution mechanism is a risk for app developers, and I believe it is stifling innovation by app developers.

    Users fearful of downloading apps outside the context of the app store wouldn't have to. But I see no harm in giving users the choice.

    If developers could distribute apps on their own, Apple's taking 30% of revenue would seem like a worthwhile commission payment. As it stands now, it is more like a tax.

  6. Time will tell if Apple's strategy can be sustained. My argument isn't that an open iPhone would be inferior, it's that the only way the current app store can really be effective is if it is mandatory. If Apple's model fails and they are forced to open up to remain relevant, that's one thing, I just don't see the need at the moment. There are viable alternatives coming to market now so anyone who wants open knows where to find it.

  7. I come from a Symbian background where nearly every app is available pirated for free, sometimes within hours of release.
    The largest smartphone platform in the world, but somewhere as a developer you're lucky to sell a few thousand copies, yet on a pirate forum your app has been downloaded two hundred thousand times....
    Somewhere where you have to process your own payments etc...or put your app in to different stores from manufacturers and operators, who take their own cut, some up to 60%.
    You still want to have an open system? Mad I tell you, your mad