App Shopping

Published 14 years, 1 week past

While I agree with Neven Mrgan’s Walled Gardens, I feel like the whole imagery of walled gardens is a bit of a metaphorical stretch — not because it’s inaccurate, but because it’s fundamentally unnecessary.  We don’t need metaphors here.

That’s because the iTunes App Store is just what its name states: it is a store.  That has a fairly specific and intentional meaning in the world of commerce.  It means that the stock is not infinite and that someone has screened it.

Think of visiting a store in the real world.  Not a small shop, but a store.  Something large (or at least largish) with lots of things to buy.  Macy’s.  Target.  Wal-Mart.  Or even the local hardware and general store in a small town, where there’s more than just tools and nails and bags of cement mix.

You go there to buy things because it’s a central location for buying a lot of things.  But inherent in the experience is that what you find on the shelves has been selected and vetted by the person or people running the store.  That doesn’t just mean favoring one brand of soap over another, but also deciding what to carry at all.  Your hardware store doesn’t sell flat-panel HDTVs.  Macy’s doesn’t stock six-inch PVC pipe.  Target doesn’t offer porn.  They have all selected some things to carry and rejected, if only implicitly, others.  Certain brands are not carried because their quality didn’t meet the proprietor’s standards, didn’t fit the store’s audience and brand, or weren’t sufficiently profitable to claim valuable shelf space.

This is an assumption about stores that we hardly notice except when it’s clearly not so.  If you’ve ever stepped into a store where it’s fairly obvious that everything, and I mean everything, the owner has ever come across in their life has been thrown onto the shelves on the theory that hell, it might look like junk but you never know what might be valuable to somebody, and you know what I mean.  We subconsciously expect that a store will offer wares which have been screened for quality and price, all conveniently collected in one place for our purchase.

So it is with the App Store.  It’s a central location for iPhone and iPad owners to go shop for apps.  The stock is large — too large for any physical store to handle — but it is still screened.  You may not like the screening criteria, just as you may not like the screening criteria exercised at Wal-Mart, but it exists nonetheless.

In the desktop computing world, of course, no such control exists.  There you find and collect applications wherever you find them, whether in a store or somewhere on the internet.  This is much the same as doing your shopping by driving around to garage sales and flea markets.  Taken as an aggregate, there’s no quality control, no screening, no organization.  It’s catch as catch can.

There’s room in the world for both models, of course.  Some people avoid stores in favor of flea markets and yard sales and the like because that’s what they prefer.  Others go to stores and avoid garage sales because they prefer the more controlled experience.  In fact, think about everyone you know.  How many prefer store shopping, and how many prefer flea market shopping?  In that light, the iTunes Store’s success is really no mystery.  It’s not just curated computing, which some have derided.  It’s curated shopping, a model which has already proven wildly popular.  More than that, it’s simple and cheap curated shopping, which is approximately the square of two wildly popular models.

You may say that there’s a significant difference between the physical world and the iTunes App Store.  If the real world were like iPhone/iPad ecosystem, there would only be one store in the whole world.  Everyone would have to shop there, and any merchant who couldn’t get in would be out of business for lack of customers.  In the real world, we can go to any store we like:  each is curated, but we can shop at the stores that offer what we like (read: that curate in a manner we find pleasing) and not the ones that don’t.  The App Store is the only place to shop.

But that’s only true if you believe that the iPhone/iPad is the only mobile ecosystem in town, which is an assumption a weirdly large number of Apple’s critics seem to make.  In fact, you’re perfectly free to join other ecosystems and shop at other stores.  Android has one, for example.  There are others.  If you don’t like what Apple offers you, then you can shop somewhere else, as many people do.

But let’s assume that you’re personally invested in the iPhone/iPad ecosystem and can’t for some reason avoid or leave it.  In that case, you’re stuck with that one single store, the App Store.

Except that’s only true because until now, nobody has launched an alternate store that offers web stack applications (WSAs).  Maybe that’s because nobody is really building WSAs yet, at least not in numbers large enough to justify building a store to sell them.  But then, maybe developers aren’t building WSAs because there’s no central place to sell them.  The centralization of stores is at least as attractive to sellers as to shoppers.  That’s a driver behind the recent announcements from Google and Mozilla, though as yet they’re just announcements.

A WSA store organized along lines similar to the App Store could do very, very well.  It would need to make the shopping and, more importantly, purchasing experiences as frictionless as possible; this is something the iTunes Store has definitely gotten right.  But suppose someone built a great WSA store and sold WSAs on a 20% commission.  How many developers might look at that and figure that the extra 10% was worth making a shift?

It certainly wouldn’t be as easy as just setting up a store and building a Scrooge McDuck vault; no, there would be many challenges, but nothing truly insurmountable.  Of that I am certain.  And the great thing is that, just like in the physical world, there’s room for multiple stores — boutique app shops, if you like.  Maybe one specializes in games; another in parent- and kid-centric apps; another in productivity apps; yet another in the “naughty” apps Apple booted out of its ecosystem a while back.  (I call them “fapps” for obvious reasons.)  Maybe these are app shops instead of app stores, but then, any large population can support a whole lot of shops.  They can coexist with any number of other stores, including those from Apple and Google and Mozilla and anyone else.

None of these WSA stores and shops would be able to sell native apps, but that’s less of an obstacle than many seem to think.  The window between native app behavior and WSA behavior has narrowed at an astonishing rate recently, and will continue to do so.  I’m not saying that you can do absolutely anything with a WSA that you can do in native code, of course, but a lot of native apps could have been done as WSAs.  Could still be done that way, in fact.

That points to the other advantage of a WSA store: it’s not limited to the iPhone/iPad ecosystem.  A well-written WSA can run in multiple ecosystems.  Being based on web technologies, they can (for the most part) go where the web goes.  The market is suddenly much bigger than the iTunes Store, much bigger than people carrying around Apple devices.  Much bigger than the people carrying around Droids, for that matter.  With WSAs, developers can sell in multiple ecosystems at once, using the most successful cross-platform technology since ones and zeros.

Besides which, in a very real sense, WSAs are not cross-platform apps.  They’re web platform apps that run in a native app that provides a window from a mobile ecosystem into the web.  We call that app a web browser, but it’s becoming more than that, and faster than many would have credited even six months ago.  The opportunities are beyond enormous.

For starters, imagine this: you have bought a number of apps at your favorite WSA store and installed them on your iPhone.  Then you find out you can finally get the hell off AT&T and move to a Verizon iPhone.  When you do that, the WSA store lets you install the apps you’ve already bought on your new ViPhone.  If it’s sufficiently smart, it will even migrate their data for you by way of the store itself.  Then, two years later, you decide you’ve had enough of Apple and want to move to another smartphone.  Once again, your apps and data go with you.

This is what the web stack makes possible.  If you thought mobile number portability was cool, imagine what you’ll think of mobile app portability.

Comments (36)

  1. Great post, Eric. (But why do you call naughty apps “fapps?”)

  2. I really like your analysis of Apple’s mobile commercial ecosystem, starting with a reminder of what a store really is. (i.e. we’re not all *entitled* to have our stuff in *someone else’s* store) It’s levelheaded, honest, and objectively explains both the strengths and the weaknesses. Apple has a way of really getting people emotionally riled-up (both positively and negatively); this is a refreshing look without all of that unnecessary drama that seems to color so much Apple analysis.

    And your description for WSAs is quite grand and visionary. As much as I am a fan of Apple’s existing system, I can see that such an evolution for app portability could be a great next step.

    As a company, Apple does great thinking and wonderful work, but they’re not immune to evolution either. They need to be pushed, too. And we’re only 3 years into this Apple mobile experiment, so it’s just getting started.

  3. …although this misses one challenge with this model: when apps are easily portable across all WSA-supportive devices and stores, it’s hard to imagine how the payment chain doesn’t get broken. If it’s trivial for me to port a WSA across to a new device, isn’t it trivial for me to “port” it onto my friend’s phone too?

    Of course, you can flip the payment issue around – have customers pay for registration per-device, for example, or pay for a required (network) service. There’s issues with those too, of course.

    Don’t take this the wrong way, though – I’m completely bought in to WSAs, the deployment model just has some challenges.

  4. Eric, I’d be curious what your favorite apps are built on the web stack? I’m not 100% sure which ones I have on my iPhone that are WSA, but I have my suspicions of which ones are… ones that don’t feel quite right.

    I’m not saying that’s not worth the trade off of portability, or that they couldn’t be more native-feeling. But my understanding is that XCode is a cozy environment for most devs, and most like the bazaar of iTunes (a few vocal devs outstanding). I wonder if there’s enough of an incentive for devs to make the switch?

  5. I assume “naughty apps” are fapps because they are for fapping.

    I love the idea of a WSA store, but doesn’t this really just shift the control from one entity (Apple) to another (the WSA provider)? If we are talking about selling apps, not just giving them away, there must be an authentication of user and sale. An app built for a WSA store is just as locked to that store as an iPhone app is to the Apple App Store. Possibly more — to minimize piracy, the web stack app must verify from time to time that it has been paid for, which requires going back to the store’s API. An iPhone app, once purchased and authorized, never needs to talk to the network again. (In theory. In practice, apps sometimes lose their authorization due to a bug in iPhone OS, and must be re-authorized by downloading any free item from the App Store. And of course, we are intentionally ignoring jailbreaks, as those are far from the typical consumer experience.)

    A WSA store would increase user freedom in terms of what device they choose to use, which would be lovely, but there is still a controlling service provider between user and developer — and that seems to be what many developers object to.

    Am I wildly off base?

  6. Two things:
    1. If someone provided the infrastructure to allows blogs to become “boutique” app stores. (or basically just for anyone to create app stores) then the time it would take for for the idea of WSA stores to open would be virtually nothing. (kind of like Amazon’s affiliate(?) links) The store infrastructure could take 10%, the store 10% leaving the devs 80%. That would be a number of great incentives rolled into one. Synching data and moving to new phones would theoretically be a non-issue (no?) just like google apps follow you to a new android device. The most you would have to do is create shortcuts on their homescreen (or equivalent)

    2. A directly related idea that I had was creating a Web Stack iphone emulator that would allow you to provide iphone apps as web services, that way existing iPhone apps could market to android and other phones, and more importantly rejected App store apps wouldn’t be a wasted investment. (link to my short blogpost on the topic from yesterday )

    great idea, great post!

  7. A quality web app store, that customers actually want to use, would actually be a big incentive for Apple to improve and update iPhone OS’ WebKit engine more frequently, lest it becomes inferior, feature- and standards compliance-wise, to the competition.

  8. You’re right in saying in your analogy that iTunes isn’t the only store in the world. I think a more accurate description would be if it was the only store in your country, so that to shop at a different store you’d have to learn a foreign language and move there. It’s certainly possible, but it’s not what I would call choice.

  9. The whole WSA angle is pretty interesting. I can imagine HP, with it’s recent Palm takeover, would do well with such a store.
    I remember making cross-platform website, way back when. It’s now an issue of cross-browser compatibility. With each new browser release (looking at you MS) this is becoming easier and easier. So I now see a day, in the not to far future, that cross-browser will become cross-client. Email, devices (tablets & phones), web browsers (on desktops), web apps. etc.

    WSA stores seems more and more obvious the more you think about it.

  10. Eric, your post is essentially two parts, and I realize that part one is primarily for exposition/segue into part two. Still, I’d like to point out something that’s only to do with part one and nothing to do with part two.

    I don’t find any fault in your desire to focus detractors’ attention on the fact that the App Store is a store; essentially, you point out that detractors cry for the elimination of artificial restrictions that make the App Store (and its processes) unlike the real world, but they ignore the “a store is a store” aspect—that is, the store model is very much like the real world.

    As I read, however, I was preparing for comment about the idea encapsulated in the following sentence:

    It’s a central location for iPhone and iPad owners to go shop for apps.

    Namely, that the App Store isn’t just a central location to shop, driven primarily by the convenience users experience (as with real world stores); it’s the only location to shop. Much of part one had the same tone as the quoted sentence above. You eventually addressed what I refer to, though:

    The App Store is the only place to shop.¶ But that’s only true if you believe that the iPhone/iPad is the only mobile ecosystem in town, which is an assumption a weirdly large number of Apple’s critics seem to make. In fact, you’re perfectly free to join other ecosystems and shop at other stores.

    Now, however, you’re affording Apple leniency for a pass that doesn’t model the real world. Of course anyone is free to start their own app store, so long as you don’t hope to sell native apps. But real world stores don’t have to operate with that kind of caveat. If you want to launch a real world store where your inventory includes the same class of products as the status-quo rival who spurred you into business, you can. If you want items in your inventory with intersects with that of your rival, so you’re selling some of the very same products as they do, you can (so long as you have arrangements with suppliers, of course—which is an apropos caveat for both real world stores and app stores). If you even wanted to practically mirror their inventory to the best of your abilities, you’re free to do that as well.

    Now with part two you go on to say, roughly, “We don’t need native app stores anyway.”, so perhaps you’ll see this as moot, but it’s something I felt like noting.

  11. I think indie Mac developers should club together and start an App Store for the Mac. Make it as easy as Apple’s App Store (as far as you can on the Mac).

    Maybe making apps for the Mac will die off now the iPad’s here, but it might help keep Mac apps viable for a bit longer. Share the effort, share the benefits of consumers having one place to go.

  12. I think the key issue being overlooked in ‘Part I’ regarding the real-world metaphor of the store, is WHY a store is what it is. A physical store doesn’t carry everything under the sun due to the limitations of the physical world: stock, physical space, inability to easily search. These limitations are lifted in the digital world. There is no arbitrary limitation on the number or size of items in an online store because users can search through a near limitless amount of ‘stuff’ simply using faceted search.

  13. I’ll admit – I haven’t read the half of this post about WSA’s yet, I’ve only skimmed it. But your initial analysis of the App Store as a Store is a great point I think many people forget!

  14. The App Store is the only viable app store in town. The App Store is like Wall-Mart while the others are almost a 7-11. No comparison. If I need something I go to the store that has it.

    Yes, multiple stores for each platform would be good. Choice usually benefits the consumer and I like choice as an indie developer.

    The WSAs could be an attempt to get there, but face it, they are not the same as native apps. They only work for a subset of applications. A WSA store would have many problems competing with the App Store. There is also the problem of distribution and installation. How do you install the icon onto the phone in a way that you get paid and a naive user gets their app, and the advanced users end up stealing it.

    Great article. It sparks discussion.


  15. Once you’ve bought into the iPhone/iPad ecosystem, you’re locked in because the apps you’ve bought cannot be migrated to other platforms.

    So revisiting your analogy, iPhone/iPad owners don’t actually have the option of shopping at other stores, unless they’re willing to give up everything they currently have and start over. It’d be like Wal-mart having a complete monopoly in the USA, and saying that’s OK because you can move to the UK where they have a different monopoly (and by the way, you can’t ship anything with you).

  16. A number of you seem to be locking onto the first part of the article. It’s true that the analogies in the first half are inexact (as are all analogies), but the second half attempts to show that it really doesn’t matter. Are you going to squabble over the best way to describe things as they are, or get on with building things as they should be?

  17. Eric: I really enjoyed this article and am excited to see how the WSA apps evolve. I’m also happy that you are encouraging people to stop whining and start making changes. I’m looking into it and seeing what problems need to be solved to get this rolling.

  18. The big obstacle with this is as I see it is the *selling* part of this alternate store. How can web apps be locked to they couldn’t be pirated? They aren’t tied to a user’s account like a native iPhone app. Why would developers want to risk not getting paid for their work?

    A second aspect of that is how the payment itself is handled. A *huge* aspect of he App Store is the transparency of the buying process: just put in your password and Apple does the rest. That’s why so many more apps are sold on iPhone versus Android and other OSes. If I have to fuss with paypal or get out my Visa just to buy a $1 app, I probably won’t bother. I suspect even if this alternate store existed and people knew about it, the actual sales numbers would be dreadfully low.

  19. I say lets build some things. I think your assessment of the web stack, HTML5 Apps, is dead on, but I would argue that people are thinking about web stacks, just not in a webby way, but an Obj-C way.

    Checkout Neven Mrgan’s take on the fact that we need a good SDK for HTML5 Apps.

    That is not the direction we should be headed. I think most web developers are comfortable doing large portions of there development in text editors. This is probably freaking out traditional app developers who are used to their UI layout editors. They probably wonder why you can’t just use Dreamweaver to export HTML5 Apps.

    As far as frontend’s are concerned, I can’t seem to find many who understand that they can write HTML5 Apps for the iPhone. Very few are aware of the nice integration Apple has for HTML5 Apps. Even less know about things like the application cache.

    If the web “pros” don’t know they can make nice, useful HTML5 Apps for phones, then I think its an information problem.

    Lastly, I think there is to much focus on the iPhone/iPad. We need to bust out, and realize that a device with a HTML5 capable browser, is a place where a HTML5 App can live.

    I am thinking about Chrome OS, Google TV, so fourth, these platform will more then likely have tight HTML5 integration.

    Let’s keep making a ruckus, eventually we will beat enough web developers over the head, before the Obj-C guys ruin the party. Oh, and they are trying hard, check out the 280 North guys, with cappuccino, Objective-J, and Atlas, they are slowly building tools to make native app developers happy, but we web developers don’t need all these fancy tools. It all boils down the HTML, CSS, and Javascript.

  20. A side note: physical shelf space at supermarkets is mostly bought by the company that want its products on there. Walmart and co partially choose the products that end up on their shelf depending on which vendors pays the most.

  21. People have touched on this already, but I just wanted to say:

    “In the desktop computing world, of course, no such control exists. There you find and collect applications wherever you find them, whether in a store or somewhere on the internet. This is much the same as doing your shopping by driving around to garage sales and flea markets. Taken as an aggregate, there’s no quality control, no screening, no organization. It’s catch as catch can. ”

    That’s wrong. You can still go to stores to buy software. Brick and Mortar, real stores. You can’t do that with the App Store. At the same time, you can also buy apps from online stores, like Valve.

    The desktop world more accurately reflects the real world. The App store more accurately reflects something like the Sears catalog.

  22. Excellent article, Eric. I’ve tried the analogy of the grocery store to explain to people why there is an App Store approval process: I can’t walk in with my homemade preserves and just put them on the shelf, for reasons that go beyond property and into the realm of safety. Apps, as Apple sees them, have the same screening need.

    > Except that’s only true because until now, nobody has launched an alternate store that offers web stack applications (WSAs).

    While not a store, Apple does maintain a showcase of web apps at, and it’s really worth checking out.

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  25. Just found this today, Google is creating a Chrome store. A place to sell HTML5 Apps.

  26. I’ve more than once wished this exact thing existed, and I suspect the Chrome store is going to get us there… or close.

    Careful what you wish for though, right? I do wonder if an easy way to monetize little web apps and tools will only serve to make the web a more closed place. I wonder how such a thing will impact the Web Community.

  27. I didn’t mean to start a game of strain the anology. I consciously had that in mind and made an attempt to avoid it. I think my comments are fitting.

  28. I don’t own an IPhone, but I do have a IPod Touch. An app that’s not tied to only one service or brand would be really nice. It would be nice to purchase an app that could be added to my BlackBerry as well.

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  30. I think about app stores in much the same way that I think about a DJ. There is some sort of qualification process for them. I’d love to see that concept applied to web stack apps.

    Some other good examples of app repositories are Facebook apps and WordPress plugin apps. I particularly like WordPress because it automatically notifies you when upgrades are available, and it includes automatic upgrade features.

    An app store could duplicate that sort of functionality for apps that aren’t hosted remotely.

  31. I think app stores are a great idea. As long as I can access more than one.

  32. The App Store is the only viable app store in town. The App Store is like Wall-Mart while the others are almost a 7-11. No comparison. If I need something I go to the store that has it.

    The WSAs could be an attempt to get there, but face it, they are not the same as native apps. They only work for a subset of applications. A WSA store would have many problems competing with the App Store. There is also the problem of distribution and installation. How do you install the icon onto the phone in a way that you get paid and a naive user gets their app, and the advanced users end up stealing it.

  33. Someone went and created a HTML5 App store openappmkt. Looks nice.

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  35. I tend to agree with most of this article and most of these rather intelligent responses. However, I think that the main difference in the way Apple has pursued its policy and the ‘real world’ is in how Apple has chosen to wield its power. I would say the whole issue with Apple, for me anyway, has to do with ethics more than anything else. In the physical realm there are 900lb gorillas but there’s tons of mom and pop stores. As consumers we may have issues with how the 900lb gorilla’s act. I don’t really like Walmart (the place or its ethics), so I try to shop elsewhere. Walmart of course may or may not notice my choice, and may or may not respond. In fact, Walmart and other major international chains & brands have attempted to respond to consumer complaints (how much and how successfully depends on your own pov). They’ve to some extent examined their ethics and made policy & manufacturing changes. To some extent, then, they’ve attempted to act ethically while still obviously looking out for the bottom line. The only reason they do this is because of the somewhat viable alternatives available to consumers.

    Here’s where I think Apple differs. Like MS of old, Apple has found itself in a near monopoly position (as assertion that is rapidly becoming outdated, but whatever). Like MS, Apple has exploited this monopoly position. Obviously I can’t really fault their business logic, but I think I can fault some of their business ethics. Rather than include relatively loose controls and relinquishing some power at what I think would be little expense, Apple has acted almost exclusively in its own interests and what it perceives to be the interests of its consumers. They’ve done things because they can. In other words, Apple has used its power rather bluntly and has thereby alienated some developers and consumers who feel that it isn’t playing ‘fair’ or according to the real world of capitalism.

    Now, I own an iPhone and I’m pretty darn happy with it. On the other hand, as a web-developer and a user of Linux etc, I do feel like the platform could be a little more open, and I can’t really see why Apple couldn’t lay off the curating of my experience. Would Flash inclusion really be such a big deal? Is the only reason I want an more open platform because I want to look at porn? Is that a fair way to characterize the debate? I don’t think so. So while I don’t hate Apple, I’m not a massive admirer of the business culture they seem to be promoting. In any case, even as I write Apple is changing its position and the WSA stores Meyer has talked about are being created by Amazon and Google. Apple will surely follow, and I’ll be more comfortable with their ‘ethics’ again.

    BTW, As for the second part of the article (which actually was what I was the most interested in) the solution in my mind to security of WSA’s and the checkout / portability procedure seems pretty simple. Apple, Google, and whoever should essentially just build a native app (a browser really) with which each WSA can be run. That App would handle the duties of authentication etc, not the WSA itself. Since Apple already doesn’t provide a method for side-loading this shouldn’t be so different from the current system. Anyway, this will probably not be a real deal breaker, as a technical hurdle I can’t see this being a real problem.

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