October 21, 2010
Follow me on Twitter

App Store

One reason I really needed a Basil Smash yesterday was the developer twitter stream in the wake of yesterday’s Mac announcements. Apple’s going to host an App Store, the open sorcerors are fit to be tied, and lots of people are anxious.

I think the Apple App Store will be a huge success, selling lots of entertainments and amusements and nifty conveniences to consumers. The newspapers will love it. It will make lots of money.

That’s a good thing. Right now, there is no channel for $1 and $5 software. The software world has never had a decent dime store. There’s an audience willing to buy, if their fear of installation can be assuaged and if the channel costs can be kept in check. If you want to build a business in this direction, the app store should help.

But it’s not going to be the only channel. A number of people – some of them usually sensible and sober – are frazzled by the prospect of the App Store becoming the only channel for software, either by corporate or by market fiat. This would be a disaster for Apple and (if alternatives could not be found) for civilization. It would be frightening. But there’s no reason to expect it to happen.

  1. Enterprise software doesn’t make sense for the app store. Its 30% margin covers mass distribution. Nobody’s going to give Apple a 30% cut of software transactions that run to six figures and require sales cycles in years.
  2. Business software can’t live with the App Store restrictions and doesn’t benefit from its curation. If you’re buying a game, you might like to know that Apple has checked it for obvious spyware. If you’re buying critical software for your business that will make you lots of money, you don’t want to wait for Apple’s permission, any more than Gimbel’s wanted to ask for Macy’s opinions on a new line of sweaters.
  3. Avant-garde software won’t be comfortable with the App Store review process, and the App Store reviewers are going to hate avant-garde software. Take us, for example. We’re planning Storyspace readers for iPad. It’s likely that someday an App Store reviewer is going to push the NEXT button and they’re going to find Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story or Mary Kim Arnold’s “Lust” at the top of their pile. They’ll do a static scan and see naughty words in the code. They’ll look closer and see reviews in the New York Times and TLS and books and university courses. I expect that the next step in the Official Procedure will be to pound head on table. This sort of thing will come up again and again; it can be managed, but it’s never going to be beer and puppies.
  4. The App Store model works well for small impulse purchases (though I notice that it’s now proverbial that people who buy iPads on impulse will dither for days over spending 99 cents in the app store). It’s less good for big ticket items, especially third-party purchases. These raise all sorts of extra social and legal considerations; buying a car is not exactly like buying a cup of coffee.
  5. NeoVictorian software is going to be an awkward fit in the App Store. It’s hand made and the brush marks show; it can be tough for a critic to distinguish energetic brushwork from sloppiness. Artisanal software is crafted by people and for people who really need it – often for tasks that are challenging and hard to understand. We’re going to see more – not less – artisanal software in the next decade, because for the first time we’ll be able to make custom and semi-custom software that helps smart people do difficult things that need doing.
  6. Apple’s on a terrific roll. The App Store may well be a huge success. There’s a real chance that either the US or the EU, or both, will be getting serious about anti-trust enforcement in the wake of 2012 or 2016. I think Apple is already thinking about ways to have the weight of that blow, if it happens, fall on Google or Verizon or Pharma rather than on Apple. Locking down the dominant platform without the excuse of protecting the telecom network would be bating the bear. There is no need for Apple to control the entire channel, it’s never been their style, and every reason for them not to be seen to try.
  7. None of this is obscure or difficult to foresee. Apple is unlikely to miss any of these points, but large organizations are sometimes strangely blind. I can’t imagine that an organization would miss all of these issues, and all point to the importance of multiple flourishing software channels.

So, teachable moment: we do need the freedom to write software and to use software that others create. We should take time, now and then, to imagine a UniComp world in which all software comes through one channel. But the App Store is not the herald of the software apocalypse.

Keep calm and make stuff.