Apple app store and ‘openness’

Letter to the editor I just sent to the New Yorker….

In the Financial Page of October 17, 2011, James Surowiecki writes of the iPhone/iPad App Store, that “the system is far more open than the Mac ever was; there are more than four hundred thousand iPhone apps written by outside developers.”

Surowiecki has it exactly backwards. The Macintosh, like every succesful personal computer since the Apple II, from any manufacturer, has always allowed owners to install software from any source they chose. Every succesful personal computer platform (including both Macintosh and Windows) has always had hundreds or thousands of outside developers, and hundreds of thousands of software packages to choose from, none of which needed to be approved by Apple or Microsoft or any other gatekeeper.

The iPhone is significantly less open than the status quo for personal computers — owners can only install software from the App Store, and software in the App Store must be approved by Apple. There are in fact reports of Apple allegedly rejecting software that conflicts with its own business plans, or those of Apple’s business partners. When Microsoft allegedly tried stifling, in more subtle and secretive ways, third-party development for Windows that conflicted with its own business plans, it wound up a defendent in antitrust actions.

The iPhone is, I agree, a fantastically amazing product, and Surowiecki is right to recognize that its excellence extends beyond the product itself, to its branding, and to it’s interactions within and among a wider eco-system of information technology. Apple has always excelled at controlling the entire user experience to beneficial ends.

But to the extent that mobile devices are increasingly being used in place of personal computers, the App Store model actually represents a very significant restriction of owners’ freedoms to install what they choose on their devices. Interestingly, open source software — which allows users freedom to modify their installed software and share those modifications — has been making gains in general, but you won’t find very much open source software in the App Store. This is in part because one can’t easily share modifications or install modified software in Apple’s locked down ecosystem, reducing the benefit of third-party open source.

The dearth of open source software for the iPhone is also, it must be admitted, due in part to the way the App Store model indeed makes it easy for the small independent developer with limited capital to make a profit selling simple and affordable software. Developers who might have released as open source for other platforms, can more easily ‘monetize’ their product in the App Store, because of how the App Store has made it easier for owners to find and — in a click — purchase and install low-priced software. And because due to Apple’s restart of the market afresh in the locked down ecosystem of the App Store, there is less competition from open source or free software.

Surowiecki is right that the Apple App Store is a tremendously transformative model of a new market ecosystem. This model has been commercially succesful for the iPhone with remarkably speed, but we’re still in the beginning stages of its effects on how computers will be used, still learning the developing implications of this disruptive change. There will surely be both benefits and disadvantages for software developers and users alike. But contrary to Surowiecki’s narrative of the App Store as evidence of a continual trend toward openness at Apple or in Steve Jobs’ attitude, the salient effect of the App Store’s ecosystem innovation is to restrict owners’ freedom over their own devices in a way that other computer companies had probably dreamed of, but that neither Apple nor Microsoft nor anyone else had previously managed to accomplish.


2 thoughts on “Apple app store and ‘openness’

  1. I had exactly the same reaction to reading that ridiculous sentence. Jobs seems to have oscillated between preferring closed and somewhat-closed computer ecosystems, but the iPhone appstore model took it to another level of closedness.

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