Photo by Adam Engst
The iOS App Store is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Apple has commemorated the event with a self-congratulatory article, whose tone rankled from the very first sentence:
When Apple introduced the App Store on July 10, 2008 with 500 apps, it ignited a cultural, social and economic phenomenon that changed how people work, play, meet, travel and so much more.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no question that the App Store has had a significant impact on individuals and developers alike, and the article includes numerous testimonials. There are also stories like this one from Alan Oppenheimer, who went from helping to create AppleTalk and running an Internet service provider to developing what became Art Authority.
The App Store’s numbers are also hugely impressive. Over 500 million people from 155 countries visit the App Store each week, and Apple says it has paid out $100 billion to developers over the past decade. Currently, there are 20 million Apple developers, and the App Store hosts over 2 million apps. (According to Statista, Google Play offers 3.8 billion apps.)
So yes, the App Store has been successful. But it’s a just a store, and one that suffers from poor app discovery and high developer transaction fees. And how much of its success is due purely to the popularity of the iPhone and iPad? (It’s also fair to ask how much of the popularity of the iPhone was driven by the App Store.) Any hardware platform that sells hundreds of millions of devices and has a software development kit will end up with lots of apps.
Also integral to the App Store’s success is Apple’s tight control over distribution and sales. The only way to sell an iOS app outside the App Store or to distribute an app that doesn’t abide by Apple’s guidelines is through Cydia, which requires a jailbroken device. Needless to say, because jailbreaking relies on security vulnerabilities, Apple makes it as hard as possible. The result is that the App Store is an almost complete monopoly for iOS apps, although the upside is a marketplace largely free of apps that abuse user privacy and security.
Apple goes on to claim that “Before 2008, the software industry was dominated by a few large companies.” Obviously, before 2007, there was no iPhone, so this claim must be about desktop computers like the Mac, but it’s still patently untrue. Sure, Microsoft and Adobe were juggernauts back then (and still are), but there were lots of small developers, many of whom created innovative Mac software that we’ve covered in TidBITS for years. It’s also worth noting that Apple far prefers an industry made up of smaller companies who will never pose a threat. Apple doesn’t want iOS and macOS to depend on software like Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Cloud that can be used just as easily on other platforms.
Apple’s article implies that the App Store is the path to riches. Some small developers have indeed done very well, but the bulk of the App Store payouts go to large companies—Pokémon Go generated $2 billion in 2017 alone. It’s hard to find current information, but in 2011, one survey found that the median revenue from an iOS game was $2400. (That means that half of the games in this survey made more than $2400 and half made less. The average, which was skewed by a few top performers, was over $86,000.) My point is merely that, despite the big numbers Apple throws around, most apps from most developers don’t make much money.
It is true that the App Store removed certain types of friction from software publishing by providing a distribution and payment system. But if that was so important, the companion Mac App Store, which debuted in 2010, should be more dominant than it is. Thanks to Apple’s often draconian technical requirements (particularly related to sandboxing), fussy submission process, and 30% transaction fees, many Mac developers have avoided the Mac App Store entirely, and some high-profile developers have pulled their products. Apple seems to be making changes to woo them back with macOS 10.14 Mojave, but the point stands—when developers have a choice, they don’t always choose the App Store.
Part of my discomfort with the App Store has been related to the limited number of business models that Apple allows. Yes, Apple added in-app purchases in 2009 and enabled subscriptions in all app types in 2016, but the company has never allowed true trial versions, coupon-based discounting, or paid upgrades. Developers have figured out workarounds in some of these cases, but in the end, the App Store is anything but a “free market.” Perhaps the rise of subscriptions is changing this, but for most of the App Store’s existence, Apple’s forced economic models made developers chase new customers rather than serve existing users with upgrades.
Even more philosophically discomfiting has been watching how the App Store drove the prices—and thus perceived value—of software to essentially zero. Because app discovery in the App Store has always been terrible, and there are so few ways to stand out from the many similar apps in any category, developers responded by competing largely on price. Apps that have price tags at all are considered expensive now, and many free apps rely on intrusive and potentially privacy-damaging advertising. Of course, that’s largely following the lead of the Web, where advertising has long been the dominant approach for revenue generation, and where users are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with ad tracking and personalization.
At this point, any criticisms risk sounding like sour grapes. The App Store is a fact of life, and with no competition, substantive changes will be few and far between. But I don’t think we need to glorify what the App Store has achieved or assume that it has necessarily produced the best of all possible worlds. Even without the App Store, the iOS ecosystem may have evolved very similarly—it’s not as though the Mac world has suffered horribly from app distribution outside the Mac App Store.
In the end, I have much less problem praising the iPhone and the iPad, and iOS in general, along with the useful and entertaining apps provided by independent developers and corporate behemoths alike. But extolling the virtues of the App Store? It’s like talking about how great malls are.