From Closed To Open: iPhone App Developer Skepticism Highlights Platform Trajectory

from the closed-vs.-open dept

I’ve been getting into some interesting discussions with people lately concerning open vs. closed platforms — especially in light of the supposed “success” of Apple’s iPhone app store, which is a very closed platform. And the point that I’ve tried to make is that you have to understand the trajectories of these things over time. At any given time, it’s never difficult to find a closed platform that is successful. In fact, I’d argue that if you are reshaping a market, often it helps to have a closed platform initially to drive that market in a useful direction — though, this can really only be accomplished by someone visionary (Steve Jobs certainly counts). The question is how does this play out long term. And the answer is that you can’t stay closed too long, or open solutions will catch up and surpass you. We’ve seen this pattern multiples times (closed AOL –> open internet?).

Where this gets trickier is that the open solutions are almost always substandard to the closed solutions initially. In some ways, this is by design. The closed solution is often much cleaner and slicker, and so it gets a lot of the initial use. But, overtime, the limitations of the closed solutions become increasingly clear, and as people bump up against those limits, frustrations increase, and more and more effort is put towards making the open solutions better — even to the point that eventually they exceed the closed solution. It’s a messy process, but the point where momentum shifts is often a subtle one, and the proprietors of the closed solution usually don’t recognize it’s a problem until way too late.

I believe that’s the case with the App Store. The iPhone itself did an amazing job pushing the state of the mobile phone/portable computer market forward. There are some people who like to mock it as nothing special, but that’s unfair. The device itself was a huge leap forward in demonstrating what a phone could be, and many others are just starting to grasp what this means more than two years after the original was introduced. That said, we’re seeing more and more evidence concerning frustrations on the limits imposed by Apple’s closed system, such as the arbitrary rejections of apps.

James points us to a worthwhile post from an iPhone developer, noting how the process is getting to the point where it’s less and less worth it to develop for that platform. You have to put in a ton of work, and then you have to wait for quite a while just to get the app approved (or rejected), and the whole process is quite arbitrary. With that in mind, developers have a lot less certainty, and it shows a growing interest in other platforms.

To date, admittedly, such alternatives really haven’t been very good. There are other app stores (some more open than others), but none has really been able to build up much traction yet on other devices. But there’s a huge opportunity here if someone else can make this happen (or, if there were a way to standardize across some of the competitors) and start doing a better job serving both developers and consumers. The closed solution helps define the initial market — but the open solution almost always wins in the long run.

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Comments on “From Closed To Open: iPhone App Developer Skepticism Highlights Platform Trajectory”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Apple has lived by the sword and nearly died the sword, that of a closed black box, closed market mentality. It shouldn’t be a shock that their actions (including how they treated the Palm Pre people) are protective of their space. Apple quite simply doesn’t play well with others, never have, and likely never will.

“The closed solution helps define the initial market — but the open solution almost always wins in the long run.”

Apple folks would tell you that they are playing between “almost” and “always”, and making a ton of money doing it.

rwahrens (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I really don’t see the problem with Apple’s producing a proprietary system. Micro$oft does, and I don’t see you folks complaining!

Apple produces a vertical, proprietary system that is designed to work well with its own components. Is it truly a surprise that they don’t want other companies’ equipment faking themselves as Apple equipment to take advantage of Apple’s software features? Would any other company out there be any different?

Apple has lead the fight against Micro$oft to establish open standards for everything from TCP/IP to USB and others as well. If it were up to M$, all standards would be closed M$ protocols.

Just because Apple produces a proprietary system does not mean that they are against open standards. But that does NOT mean that they have to allow any Joe Blow out there to use Apple software for fun and profit!

Like any product, both Apple’s proprietary systems and open systems like Linux will live or die according to how well those products meet the needs of the marketplace.

Doctor Strange says:

In a recent article, PC World lists the top apps that you can’t get for your (non-jailbroken) iPhone.

While a small number of them are head-scratchers (inability to forward voicemail to email?), it’s obvious why many others are missing: they duplicate functionality already present in the phone, they duplicate functionality that has now been added to the phone’s hardware or software, they skirt the boundaries of copyright law or violate website terms of service, and so on.

If these apps are representative of the kinds of things that Apple is rejecting, it doesn’t seem like there’s much cause for a panic.

Clay Shirky defines one of the key boundaries between the “old” and “new” worlds of content as “filter then publish” (old) vs. “publish then filter” (new). With 15,000+ apps on the App store right now, it’s unclear that Apple is really doing that much filtering before publishing.

TheStupidOne says:


Google’s Android mobile operating system has LOTS of potential and my next phone will be one of those. It doesn’t have nearly the following of Apple yet, but it is only on T-Mobile. Once Verizon and AT&T have Android phones the Android marketplace will take off and I am confident it will surpass the iPhone’s App store

Android = open … open source, open app store, and hopefully soon open hardware

Griff (profile) says:

The benefit of filtering

One ofthe problems with new music is finding what is good. Almost everyone unwittingly cedes the bulk of this search to someone else (music mags, radio stations, and ultimately record labels. That is to say, of all the music they COULD listen to, they only in fact ever come across a tiny proportion.

By acting as a “publisher”, Apple are to some extent doing this. With a completely open app store there might be a million apps and a lot would be rubbish. You might say “they don’t reject that many” but the sheer existence of a rejection process probably ensures that fewer people go to the effort of developing unless they think the app stands a chance of acceptance.

Of course, the “new” model is for apps to be judged by a crowdsourced rating system. This is what I would imagine a google app store to be like.

I am interested to know whether there is comeback against Apple if they approve an app that then goes on to damage or corrupt my iPhone.

Michael Long (profile) says:

Long run?

“The closed solution helps define the initial market — but the open solution almost always wins in the long run.”

Then I guess it depends on your definition of “long run,” doesn’t it? And your definition of “win” as well.

It’s been the year of the Linux desktop for, what 6-7 years now? But Linux still accounts for a meager 1-4% of desktop OS’s, depending on whose numbers you believe.

Or as to “winning”, the story about how, with just 3 percent of the global cell phone market, smartphone makers Apple and Research in Motion command an estimated 35 percent of total worldwide operating revenue. –And their share is expected to grow even more.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Re: Long run?

Michael Long wrote:

Then I guess it depends on your definition of “long run,” doesn’t it?

Linux has been around for about 18 years now. It has been slowly but steadily growing market share during all that time. So what if it takes another 18 years, or 20 or 30, to become dominant? It’s not going to go away before then.

Lots of companies have tried to unseat Microsoft’s dominance. Typically they last for no more than about 5 years, before their investors lose patience and they either get shut down or bought out by somebody else. With proprietary software, that’s the end—it disappears into a vault or ends up mouldering in a desk drawer somewhere. And the next company to try has to start from scratch.

But with Free software, each new entrant gets to build on the work done before. So it can only grow from strength to strength. This is why the triumph of open systems is inevitable.

rwahrens (profile) says:

Re: Re: Long run?

And Apple has been around for over thirty.

Not every public company goes under due to investor impatience, nor get bought out. Some are successful in their own right.

Microsoft has been “successful” due to the illegal leveraging of their monopoly. Apple is successful due to their paying attention to their core principle of just making great products.

Open systems are fine in their place, and will do much better in third world countries where people, organizations and governments are willing to put a bit more effort in learning how to use it because free beats the heck out of paying the proprietary companies for their software.

In some distant future, the Linux community “may” finally figure out how to build a slick, easy to use UI that the common man won’t need to jump through hoops to learn how to use, and “may” figure out how to market it so more than 5% of the population even knows about it.

Get back to us when they do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Long run?

Hah. Linux will unseat Microsoft. Linux developers write software for what they want. They write for the 1-2% that want that additional feature. Microsoft writes for a broader audience, around the 95% audience. Because Microsoft see their job as supporting the computing needs of the world not just Monster Energy drinkers sitting in their mom’s basement. Oh sure, more people have linux now than 18 years ago. But millions more have Microsoft.

Linux and Open Source community needs to understand that they have a place in the world of computers. Second Place.

Linux developers are not usually ahead of the curve with features and functions, but they do great at hacking and copying other peoples work. Even if you lump Apple’s adoption (non-open source versions) of Linux based OSes into Linux’s category you still have less than 10% market share.

Microsoft’s pervasive market share may irk you guys, but by putting a computer in nearly every home and office in the world Microsoft has advanced the audience available for Open Source converts. Not to mention the Internet, e-commerce, home based businesses.

Find me a box in any store that says “This computer part compatible with Linux only.”

Face it noone every gets a linux computer as their first computer. So at best Linux will always be Second Rate Computing.

To change this Linux needs to do only one thing. Find a single market and develop everything that market needs, ignoring all others for a while. Get 100% of that market and let them take you home with them, doubling the linux market. Then pick another market and expand your offering to them.

You would know this if Linux people did anything except complain about Microsoft. Because that is what THEY did.

Phoenix says:

Re: Re: Re: Long run?

@18 AC – Well stated.

Linux is developed by geeks for geeks. That works fine for things like servers that sit in the server room and are maintained by other geeks. It works fine for R&D desktops that are used by geeks to write software.

Despite all it’s strengths, Linux is missing a non-geek UI. Until that issue is resolved, Linux will not achieve consumer mainstream status. And without mainstream status, Linux will be ignored by most mainstream application developers – which guarantees that Linux will stay in the weeds.

Chrome o/s might go some way towards resolving the missing UI problem – we’ll see.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Long run?

“Despite all it’s strengths, Linux is missing a non-geek UI. Until that issue is resolved, Linux will not achieve consumer mainstream status”

What are you talking about? There are many different UIs for Linux and they haven’t been “geeky” for a long time. For example, KDE is modeled after the Windows Vista GUI. In fact, the Windows 7 GUI has taken a lot of features that Compiz introduced long ago.

“Geeky-ness” isn’t the reason why Linux is not mainstream. That’s like saying the “Cult” that follows Apple is the reason why it will never take over Microsoft’s market share. Think about it, what does both Microsoft and Apple do for their OS’s that Linux doesn’t, or can’t? It’s simple, MARKETING. Have you ever seen an advertisement for Linux on TV or on the Radio or example? You see them occasionally online but, it’s uncommon because there is no central body that pumps money into Linux development or marketing.

People seem to ignore that simple detail. The sheer fact that Linux has grabbed 4% of the basic user market share without ANY marketing or corporate footing is extremely impressive.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Long run?

I agree with you about Linux, but I think there are two good reasons for this.

1) Building open operating systems for PCs is extremely hard.
2) Microsoft has been better than most at reacting to the threat of open platforms.

When Java and Eclipse started gaining market share, MS responded by improving ASP.NET, and offering free versions of their tools.

When Firefox started gaining market share, MS started working on IE again (albeit with questionable success).

If MS had not been making continual improvements to Windows, and also trying to make it easier for developers to build Windows apps, I think that the year of Linux would have come a while ago. MS just does too good a job of walking that thin line between open and closed. Even the Xbox and the Zune have home brew developer kits, and fairly open, community-driven models for inclusion into the distribution programs.

Phillip (profile) says:

Re: Long run?

I may be wrong, but I don’t think he means to say that the OS has to be open at all. Thus you are making an argument that Mike isn’t objecting too.

I believe he is talking about an open vs a closed ecosystem as a whole. Apple has sole control of the devices and applications on the iPhone, and they control the hardware for their OS.

Microsoft, like linux, doesn’t care what hardware you use as long as it meets minimum specs. They just make the common OS that everyone else codes to. Thus you have HP, Toshibia, Dell, custom built, etc machines that are cheaper and compete with each other in hardware.

This is what Google, and Microsoft are doing with the mobile market. Again, they let you run whatever hardware you want that can support the phone OS. Thus you have more opportunity for customers, and no restrictions on applications. If you can write it then it can be run. They don’t say well you can run X but not X+Y because Y duplicates functionality or we just don’t feel like it.

Granted MS hasn’t done a good job yet with the mobile OS, they are getting better though, and google is just getting started, but they are out there and competeing with apple. Once people get tired of Apple saying no to applications because today is a Tuesday or whatever logic they use, they will go to other platforms. Perhaps they will go to MS, google, RIM, or some new comer, but people are getting tired of having their apps randomly rejected.

rwahrens (profile) says:

Re: Re: Long run?

I don’t see it. One random developer grousing about Apple doesn’t say that their system is so broken it will fail. As long as developers see a wide market with millions of users as potential customers, they’ll keep developing.

Apple themselves has said they are constantly tweaking the system, and the fact that public pressure can reverse rejections says a lot about that process actually responding.

But Apple’s system is closed for a reason, and the main reason it is is security. Notice the recent story coming out where unlocked iPhones are receiving AIM messages from other phones? That is why they want to control the system, so crap like that doesn’t happen.

Mark my words, you’ll see problems with malware crop up on open systems long before you’ll see it on iPhones.

All those other OSes you cite? Those guys don’t make hardware, and the hardware folks don’t make software.

Apple makes them both, and in spite of predictions like Mike’s, are gaining market share, making money hand over fist, because they just make good systems that work, because they are designed to work together.

Apple is in the business to make great equipment, Jobs has said it many times before, even before they go for the money. If they want their systems to be good, remain good and provide a great customer experience, they have to control the whole widget, top to bottom. That is their business model, and it is succeeding to the tune of gaining market share and wildly gaining market profit share.

All the whining about how their systems are “closed” is just that – whining. Until you see their customers abandon that platform in droves, that’s all it will be – whining.

rwahrens (profile) says:

doesn't make sense

What you are saying is that such closed systems lose in the end because the open systems give people what they want that the closed systems do not.

As I scan the published descriptions of the rejected apps from the closed Apple store, I really don’t see a lot of things that would seem to be stuff people would be clamoring for. It would seem that if you were right, that list would include lots of stuff people would, you know, WANT to have, but would not get due to the closed nature of the app store.

Apple’s published reasons for having a “closed” store, whatever that means, are that they screen apps to ensure that they work well, don’t misuse system resources, are not serving content that would violate community ethics (porn, in other words), do not violate Apple’s terms of service and don’t compete directly against Apple’s own software. In addition, the MAIN reason is for the screening against vulnerabilities to malware or keeping out malware itself.

Yes, their process often seems capricious and arbitrary, and public opinion at stupid rejections often results in reversals.

But lots of developers have made boatloads of money, and the lesson from this app store is that tons of people will buy silly, ill-conceived apps if they are priced ridiculously low. It’s like going to a dollar store and spending a few bucks on stupid little gag gifts or practical joke stuff you know you’ll only pull out and show your friends when you’re drunk. The cost is negligible, and its a bit of fun in return!

The nice thing is that app developers have made some really useful stuff and priced them really low, just like those gag apps, and have also made boatloads of money as a result.

So as long as Apple’s app store is serving its hardware as well as it does, it will thrive, as it serves an ecosystem of closed proprietary systems that are proving wildly popular, and whose market share is growing steadily.

Nobody else’s app store will prove popular enough because nobody else’s HARDWARE is proving able to threaten Apple’s iPhone, and as long as Apple refuses to allow unauthorized software on the iPhone, those other app stores have little or no market.

So, in essence those other app stores do not directly compete with Apple’s app store, because they serve different platforms!

So tell me what’s in it for me if someone puts up an app store that has open software? I can’t put it on my iPhone, so why should I pay any attention to it?

You are comparing Apples to Oranges.

Doug Hogg (profile) says:

Fixing the iTunes store

The app store has been a big success in terms of expansion and sales, but, among other things, Apple needs to fix some problems with the pricing/ranking system. Currently the iTunes store rates apps by the number of downloads, regardless of price. Needless to say, the 99 cent apps get the most downloads, so they rise to the top of the charts. This creates tremendous pressure to lower prices to get on the top 100 list. In fact, recently Hero of Sparta, originally $10, was reduced to 99 cents and went to the top of the charts. All well and good for it, but when $10 apps lower their prices, they push less advanced apps off the bottom of the chart or prevent them from getting on. Imagine if all cars were ranked by the number sold. The BMWs would have to lower their prices or become invisible through lack of exposure. That would then push the Fiats off the bottom of the charts (who is going to buy a Fiat that is the same price as a BMW). Basically we have a pricing landslide as referenced at which collects pricing statistics:

“-What is the average cost per app?
“-Did you know prices dropped over 10% since March?


The answer is a multitiered pricing model — in other words, a top 100 list for $10 apps, a top 100 list for $5 apps, etc.. If a $10 app is at # 15 on the $10 top 100 list, it won’t have to lower its price.

Another very needed improvement is better searching. People need to be able to find what they want when they search without having to wade through un-related apps.

Basically the Apple store is busting at the seams, but if Apple plays its cards right, developers will flourish and produce incredible software. However without needed changes, many developers will be pushed out of the market by pure economics.

Doug Hogg
Toy Kite Software

Jerry Leichter (profile) says:

Steve Jobs probably agrees with you!

Apple has been extraordinarily clever about surfing the line between open and closed. Consider the history of the iPhone: Initially, it was a *completely* closed system; no user development at all. Then, it would support Web apps, but no native apps. Then it supported native apps, but only through an Apple-controlled app store. The app store wouldn’t sell anything even mildly offensive – and now it has ratings and you can sell “mature” stuff, with a proper warning,

Meanwhile, a secondary “unofficial” market in unrestricted apps for jail-broken phones develops, grows rapidly, and then slows considerably as the official market grows. Apple complains about jail-broken phones, but makes no serious attempt to block them. In fact, Apple seems to use the “unofficial” market as a way to gather intelligence about what people on the bleeding edge want to do with their phones, with no danger that problems with such apps will reflect badly on Apple.

No one gets it right forever, but Apple has managed to stay at just the right point on the curve to maximize its income. Many millions of customers, so far, as happy with the app store as it exists. As their attitudes shift, Apple will likely shift, too.

Joshua Jones (profile) says:

Android FTW

In the market of mobile phones, I have to say that the “Open” to be surpassing Apple’s “Closed” is most likely to be the Android mobile OS. While it is obvious that adoption of Android phones has been slow in the US, it is picking up momentum all around the world, with something like 15+ Android phones being released by the end of the year. And some of these phones show a nice improvement in the form of hardware.

Already, I would count my T-Mobile G1 as the iPhone’s equal, but when customers on other networks are introduced to a wider variety of Android phones, an interesting and game-changing thing will likely occur – and this is mostly what Mike is talking about here.

Developers will change sides.

When it comes down to it, ignoring the quality of the apps themselves, the app store is nothing without developers. Right now, those iPhone developers are getting more and more of a bad taste from the general closed system that is the iPhone app store, but they stay there because that is where the customers are.

That will change.

Once there are more mobile users on more networks using phones – and netbooks, let’s not forget those – running the Android OS, many of those developers will choose to spend their time working on apps that will actually make it to their respective market.

At this point, I believe that even if Apple makes their development more open, it’s still only a matter of time.

Phoenix says:

Re: Android FTW

@12 – Joshua Jones

“Already, I would count my T-Mobile G1 as the iPhone’s equal…”

You lose all of your credibility when you post a statement like that. Compared with the iPhone, the G1…

…has even worse national coverage than at&t

…has a tiny fraction of the number of applications

…has inferior touch-screen technology

…has worse battery life

…has worse o/w performance

Exactly what criteria do you use to make such a silly statement?

There may be hope for Android (especially with that new HTC touch coming down the pipe) but it sure ain’t that G1 piece of JUNK that you wasted your money on.

fogbugzd says:

Android trajectory

I have been an Android owner since they first came out, and I have been a developer almost that long. It has been interesting to watch the trajectory of the Android Market which is the equivalent of the Apple App store.

Bad taste is quite evident. At one point I was thinking they should make a separate category for “Fart Apps.” In fact, getting things into the right categories at all still seems to be a problem because the developer decides what category to put things in.

The important thing is that you do see something akin to a true Adam Smith-type market. Entry and exit to the market is easy and quick. You can literally go from concept to posted application in a single day using free tools (and some, unfortunately, have proven this). Consumers rule, but free isn’t always the pick that they make.

GPS navigator options are an interesting example. They are available at basically three price points. Google maps comes free with the phone, There is a $3-6 dollar price point with some usable if not polished navigators, and a $35 app. The $35 app is quite good and a lot of people use it despite being 10 times the price of cheaper ones. I have a regular GPS, so for a while I just used Google maps as a stand-in when I wasn’t in my car. I moved to the $3 when my wife had my car, and I needed turn-by-turn directions. If my regular GPS ever dies or gets too out of date, I will probably upgrade to the $35 app assuming something better doesn’t come along. Actually, my $3 app has been upgraded, and it looks like they have some type of partnership now with Yellow Pages. At least in the areas I travel I like the Yellow Pages app better than the Google product search. The results of searches are better on my Android than my GPS (The stand-alone GPS charges $75 to update, and I haven’t done it in over a year but my Andoid is updated for free from my perspective).

The interesting thing is that apps do compete with each other, and user comments are very important. Apps are actually allowed to compete with the native Google apps. Even the native apps are forced to get better to stay competitive.

Free is also significant as part of some business models. Sometimes they are free because the app is from a hobbyist working for fun (and some of those apps are quite good). Some of those hobbyists accept donations and get them. The Yellow Pages app is an example of a product tie in. The YP folks give away their app for free because more eyeballs means they can charge more for their advertisements.

So, the Android market has its flaws. It has a LOT of flaws. But it is also dynamic and fun. I check the market frequently just to see if anyone has come up with anything clever. I usually find mostly copy-cat apps, but every now and then you find a very original app, or an interesting twist on an old idea. The Apple App store is as safe and boring as an Old Navy store. The Android market is more like a messy flea market. The thing that should worry Apple is that the Android flea market is currently small, but it is sitting on a huge plot of ground where it has lots of room to grow.

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