Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Apple Tells Australian Regulator That the App Store Has Plenty of Competition With Websites and Other App Marketplaces

Asha Barbaschow, ZDNet:

Apple has responded further to the Australian consumer watchdog’s probe of app marketplaces, this time rejecting characterisation that the Apple App Store is the most dominant app marketplace and saying there are other options for iOS users, such as by going to a website.

[…]

“Apple is not in a position to disregard the environment in which its app marketplace operates and does not accept the Commission’s characterisation of the Apple App Store as ‘the most dominant app marketplace by a large margin’.”

I am reminded of WWDC 2007 and, more specifically, John Gruber’s memorable retort:

Perhaps it’s playing well in the mainstream press, but here at WWDC, Apple’s “you can write great apps for the iPhone: they’re called ‘web sites’” — message went over like a lead balloon.

[…]

Telling developers that web apps are iPhone apps just doesn’t fly. Think about it this way: If web apps — which are only accessible over a network; which don’t get app icons in the iPhone home screen; which don’t have any local data storage — are such a great way to write software for iPhone, then why isn’t Apple using this technique for any of their own iPhone apps?

Some of those things have changed: web apps are far more capable now than they were fourteen years ago, you can “install” them to your home screen, and it is very rare in much of the world to not be connected to some kind of network almost all the time.

What hasn’t changed is that apps and websites are fundamentally different experiences. Apple isn’t rebuilding its own apps as web apps — it has web apps, certainly, and plenty of its native apps have components written in web languages, but I cannot imagine that it would scrap its native Mail or Reminders apps in favour of HTML versions.

With the arguments in this filing (PDF), Apple is effectively standing by its fourteen year old stance that the iPhone — and, by extension, the iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV — are specialized platforms that it has been gracious enough to allow native development on and, in order to maintain that system, must extract 15–30% of developers’ revenue earned through these platforms. Developers believe that all of these devices — but, particularly, the iPhone and iPad — are more like smaller versions of a personal computer, that they should be able to write the apps they want and distribute them in a manner of their choosing, and that the 15–30% of platform-originating revenue claimed by Apple through its payment mechanisms is not a profit margin akin to that of any other store but is instead an exploitative transaction fee.

I have so far not read a well-defined argument for why iOS devices are more akin to specialized computers than general-purpose computers, nor have I read a good argument for why they are just smaller versions of personal computers. I think I would prefer an iPhone where I can install native apps from anywhere and with many competing marketplaces, but I also think I would get frustrated by the compromises made by demoting a centralized catalogue.1 Regardless of whether I would personally prefer more flexibility with my own devices, it is frustrating that I cannot decide that without switching to a worse platform that has generally lower-quality apps. Many new apps launch first on iOS — so the platform’s restrictions do not seem like a deterrent — but I cannot see a great argument for why it must be the case that, for iOS to maintain its superior quality, it must adhere to this app distribution model.

Purely as an observer, it seems like a mistake on Apple’s part for it to allow developers’ qualms with iOS app distribution to fester. Now, it is likely that a court somewhere in the world will partly set the rules of how these middle-marketplaces must operate. That’s democracy. But I am sure executives at Apple would prefer that they got ahead of these predictable disputes and averted them so that they did not escalate.


  1. This is true on MacOS, too. For example, I wish apps did not individually handle updates in their own way on my Mac. I wish that all of them could tie into a universal software update mechanism, so my apps are always up to date no matter whether I got them from the App Store or elsewhere. I appreciate Sparkle for what it is, but I prefer silent updates done in the background. ↩︎