Guarding the app store

Is Apple going too far with some of its restrictive policies surrounding the approval of apps, or is Apple just having a hard time setting the rules for something that exploded in popularity? I guess we’ll find out in due time as Apple’s policies evolve, but in the meantime Apple is on the receiving end of some tough criticism.

An app store lets companies tap into ideas from third-party innovators while retaining firm control over their brands. And that’s both its charm and its flaw. “The way Apple runs the App Store has harmed its reputation with programmers more than anything else they’ve ever done,” wrote Paul Graham, cofounder of the venture firm Y Combinator, on his blog.

The central problem is Apple’s heavy-handed management: Nothing gets into Apple’s store without the company’s express approval. Its restrictions have pushed several high-profile developers to quit the iPhone, and have bred ill will with the programmers who’ve remained. Apple may feel it has room to misbehave. No other phone can offer developers anywhere near the number of customers to be found in the App Store, so what choice do they have?

That’s a miscalculation, because the App Store’s true rival isn’t a competing app marketplace. Rather, it’s the open, developer-friendly Web. When Apple rejected Google Latitude, the search company’s nearby-friend-mapping program, developers created a nearly identical version that works perfectly on the iPhone’s Web browser. Google looks to be doing something similar with Voice, another app that Apple barred from its store. Last fall, Joe Hewitt, the Facebook developer who created the social network’s iPhone app, quit developing for Apple in protest of the company’s policies. Where did he go? Back to writing mobile apps for Web browsers.

Apple’s app bonanza won’t end anytime soon, but you’d be a fool to ignore the long-term trend in software — away from incompatible platforms and restrictive programming regimes, and toward write-once, run-anywhere code that works on a variety of devices, without interference from middlemen. As different kinds of mobile devices hit the market, from phones to tablet PCs to smartpens to e-book readers and beyond, developers will find that trend harder to ignore. They’ll need to create programs that can work not just on iPhones but on everything. Fortunately, there’s an app for that: It’s called the Web.

Apple is riding an incredible wave of success with iPhone apps, and things will only get more hectic with the introduction of the iPad that goes on sale tomorrow. Apple needs to redouble its efforts to control this situation in a manner that is fair to all participants.

  

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