The dangers of mobile app stores

Developer frustration mounts over the App StoreFew would be foolish enough to say that Apple’s iPhone App Store hasn’t been a roaring success. Users have flocked to the store in their millions and there are now thousands of applications available for users to download. Virtually all the other mobile systems operators have now wised up to this closed-market approach too. Google released its Android Market a couple of weeks back, and work on similar download platforms from Windows Mobile and Blackberry devices.

On the surface the benefits of these app stores for mobile software developers are obvious: your product is instantly available to the entire user-base of that platform, users can buy software with a single click, it cuts down on time spent creating web pages and eStores, among lots of other advantages. In reality though, the App Store isn’t quite the dream ticket developers had hoped for, and some are already getting ticked off with it, most notably Opera, which has just been told that it can’t release its Mini web browser on the iPhone. The fact that Apple has appointed itself as the God-like figure who decides whether apps are worthy enough to go on the site has enraged many developers, including Chuqui who feels that its tactics may put smaller developers off even bothering to develop apps for the iPhone.

I’m sorry, Apple, but I just don’t get it. It’s not even the NDA, it’s the lack of any significant communication about how things are being decided. People could live with it (not be happy, but live with it) if they just could find out before committing development time whether something would be approved. but they can’t. That’s a serious inhibitor to the developer ecosphere – but is that perhaps what Apple wants, to shift the iPhone world and the app store towards fewer, larger developers, without actually admitting it.

It’s not just the issue of approval that’s bugging software authors either. As developer Steven Frank notes, there are lots of freedoms that app makers traditionally enjoy that are being compromised by the app store model. While he recognises the merits of the App Store, he argues that his list of basic rights as a developer are being “used as toilet paper” by Apple. Here you can see how his list of “inviolable principles” for developers are rendered redundant by the App Store platform.

  • “I can write any software I want. Nobody needs to “approve” it” – Apple screens all software that is submitted for inclusion on the App Store and has the freedom to reject anything it doesn’t like, or pull it off without a moment’s notice.
  • “Anyone who wants to can download it. Or not”- The App Store is a ‘closed platform’, making it the only channel for people to purchase.
  • “I can set any price I want, including free, and there’s no middle-man” – The App Store has wide-ranging controls over how programs are offered, including size and price caps.
  • “I can set my own policies for refunds, coupons and other promotions” – Apple has complete control over the issuing of refunds on the Store, including determining the terms and conditions.
  • “When a serious bug demands an update, I can publish it immediately” – There have been consistent complaints from developers about the length of time it takes to get an update to a program added to the App Store.
  • “If I want, I can make the source code available” – Apple issues a strict NDA policy to all iPhone developers to prevent code from being released.
  • “If I want, I can participate in a someone else’s open source project” -Impossible due to the NDA restrictions.
  • “If I want, I can discuss coding difficulties and solutions with other developers” – Again, another no-no because of the controls over the iPhone code.

Although not perfect, traditional software delivery methods do allow developers these basic freedoms. The ability to publish and market software via a Web site, download portal, or on the shelves of a computer store still has its merits, although these channels could all disappear if the trend towards all-encompassing, closed-off mobile app stores continues. The one saving grace for developers is that Android or Symbian are both open source platforms, meaning that there will be much less restrictions placed on those who want to include their apps in these OS’s app stores. Therefore, it’s quite possible that developers will start turning their backs on the iPhone and concentrate on producing software for these other platforms instead. Apple, you have been warned.

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