App Disillusionment

Marco Arment:

Look around your iPad for a minute. How are its third-party apps doing?

Are they all being actively updated? Are they all built for iOS 7 yet? You never see any non-Retina graphics, iOS 6 keyboards, or old-style controls anymore, right?

Have you looked for any great new iPad apps recently? Did the market seem vibrant, with multiple good choices?

New iOS apps you care about are still launching with iPad versions, and they seem well-cared-for, right?1 Are you confident that they’ll be updated to take advantage of iOS 8 shortly after its release?

I hope you’ve said yes to everything, and I’m the anomaly. Because while I’m not the most devoted or frequent iPad user, the software landscape on mine has become alarmingly stagnant.

Marco points out one of the reasons for this: a broken App Store that relies on "top lists" and makes discovery difficult because the few good grains of wheat are buried under an enormous mound of chaff.

This is definitely part of the problem. But I think there are other aspects to this: Apple intentionally commoditized apps, and still encourages unsustainable app pricing despite publicly claiming the opposite.

What's more, the tight control Apple wields over what is allowed to run on iPhones effectively kills off the most promising, most interesting apps before they're even given a chance. Remember in the 80s and early 90s, when people were excited about the Mac and Windows? The complete lack of control that platform owners had over their platforms meant that a lot of innovation came from independent developers. Developers were excited about trying out new ideas, and many of these ideas were eventually adopted by platform owners. Today, with iPhones and iPads, this doesn't happen, because Apple won't allow it. As a result, today's app market seems much more stagnant and backwards-looking than what happened when personal computing initially gained momentum.

Even when the Mac had just a minuscule market share, to me, its software market always felt vibrant and healthy. For a while, you could visit Versiontracker every day, and every day, there was something new and interesting up there. Companies like Ambrosia and Panic and Connectix didn't paint inside Apple's lines, and the things they created — products like Snapz, Audion, RAM Doubler, Virtual Game Station, Virtual PC — were the better for it.

Note that all of these apps would be forbidden under Apple's rules. Snapz created a global hotkey that was active in all applications, Audion drew its faces1 on top of other applications by capturing a screenshot to create the kinds of alpha channel effects that have become commonplace on modern systems, RAM Doubler is an obviously terrible hack that nevertheless helped a lot of people get more out of their 4 megs of RAM than they could have otherwise, and both VGS and VPC were emulators.

The Mac software market was exciting. By rights, that — and more — should be what the iPhone software market is today. But the same kind of excitement and progress just isn't there with iPads and iPhones. Instead, the iPhone app market is a market defined by uncertainty and fear.

I'm not saying that the Mac software market was perfect for developers. Sales channels today are much better than what they were in the 90s, and the fact that many more people own iPhones than ever owned Macs can only be a good thing for developers.

I'm also not saying that Apple's tight control doesn't have advantages for Apple, and for its users. It's great that people can feel safe downloading things from the App Store. But feeling safe only goes so far when every visit to the App Store makes you feel depressed because the store is overflowing with useless, unsupported crap that crowds out all of the good apps, and when many apps that you download turn out to be manipulative Skinner boxes intent on turning you into one of the unfortunate whales who spend vast amounts of money on pointless in-app purchases.

If design is how it works, then rules that restrict what you can do with a device are part of its design. The App Store review guidelines, and the often inexplicable2 rules that reviewers actually use when deciding who's in and who's out, are just as much part of the design of the iPhone as its chamfered edges. If you restrict what your device can do in a way that directly or indirectly prevents your users from using the device in a way that would be desirable to them, your design has failed these users.

Apple's rules have created a situation where fear of rejection pushes developers away from the platform, or, if they do support it, incentivizes them to release apps that are unlikely to be rejected, do not require large investments of time so that the loss is small if they are rejected, and can compete in a market that is overwhelmed by manipulative crap.

Meanwhile, Android is much more permissive, and this is reflected in a much wider variety of software that's available for these devices.3 Unfortunately, Apple owns the high-end of the phone market (i.e. many of the people who are actually willing to pay for software), and as a result, Android's store is burdened by other problems.

That's the current situation for developers. You can either develop for a platform that severely limits what you are allowed to do, limits your ability to differentiate yourself from your competition, and then forces you to sell your app at unsustainable prices in a store that is overflowing with useless crap, and that rewards developers who employ psychologists in order to design apps that manipulate people into paying exorbitant amounts of money in exchange for bits. And even if you do your best, your app might be rejected anyway. Or you can develop for a platform where most people are even less willing to pay for your product than on the aforementioned tightly controlled platform.

Neither option sounds like a good business case that will attract the kinds of developers who will create the kind of killer app you could never imagine, but that completely changes how you view your phone.

And that's bad for everybody.

Commoditizing apps and tightly controlling the market for apps on iPhones benefits Apple, and many of its users, in the short run. But in the long run, an unhealthy software ecosystem can't be good for Apple, for its users, or for the developers who write apps for Apple's platforms.

  1. Before complaining about that term, remember that everybody else called these "skins." ↩︎

  2. Here's one of the earliest, most unwarranted, and — to me — most disheartening App Store rejections. In some ways, the app approval process has improved since then, but in other ways, it's still just as unpredictable as it was back then:
    Yoot Saito is one of my favorite videogame designers. He doesn't have a huge portfolio of games, but the ones he's made are invariable genius. I love Yoot Tower (a tower simulator where you specify in detail how the lifts in your tower are going to work), Seaman (a Dreamcast game where you play with a talking fish), or Odama (a real time strategy pinball game). So I was incredibly happy when Saito announced that he was working on an iPhone game back in 2008. The game was called Gabo, and it was about a little dude who was stranded on an island.
    Never heard of the game?
    That's because Apple rejected it (translation of the relevant section).
    Why did Apple reject the game? Because Apple thought it was "unpleasant." ↩︎

  3. I used to regularly switch between different mobile phone platforms. I can't do that anymore. After I switched to Android the last time, I got so used to some of the things it allows that Apple does not that I have effectively locked myself out of using an iPhone as my main device. ↩︎

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