App Stores Are Not Democracies

I'm not sure we should be thinking of handsets as little PCs and trying to get a zillion applications running on them, but, OK, if we're going to run apps on our handsets, then what's the right model for distributing those apps? Apple has shown that the vertically-integrated hardware/software/services model has real legs, and other app stores from handset vendors, carriers, and OS developers are appearing. This of course leads to two key questions: do app stores concentrate too much power (even to the point of monopoly) in one place, and what's the best model for the app store itself -- handset vendor, carrier, OS developer, or perhaps something else altogether?

I have for some time argued that any given vendor should not be allowed to monopolize a "natural" interface in their products. Openness has traditionally been the case with PCs, where one is free to run whatever OS one wants (assuming one builds one's own PC or otherwise ignores the expense associated with a bundled OS that is not used), and equally free to run whatever applications one wants, whether self-developed or obtained from any (and I do mean any) source. The natural interfaces of the hardware and OS APIs encourage innovation and ultimately enable the offering of the greatest flexibility and value to the consumer. They also prevent too much power from being concentrated in the hands of any given player in the hardware/systems software/OS food chain, which could (and, in Microsoft's case, does) result in an effective monopoly. In other words, vendors, build what you want, but keep in mind that you're here first and foremost to serve a customer and optimize for the customer experience and to satisfy, at the lower possible cost, customer needs - and not just to make money via the artificial restraint of trade.

App stores run by a handset manufacturers, OS vendor, or carriers violate this ideal if the consumer is left with no other choice to obtain apps. So, as long as we have a competitive market in apps and app stores, all is well. In the case of the iPhone, however, we don't. Apple sells you the hardware, but you're bound to a single carrier and a single source of apps. Sure, there are tens of thousands of applications, but certain apps, like Google's, are just plain banned, while others of questionable (to say the least) value and taste get approved. Remember, this is the only place to get apps for your iPhone. Is there too much power concentrated here for the purpose of simply boosting profits at the expense of the customer? Um, duh, yeah. No question about it.

If you, dear user, want to play in this world and you do not find these restrictions objectionable, then go right ahead. But I think it's time for the regulators (do we still, by the way, have regulators? It seems they're really on the side of business, not the consumer who pays the bills. I mean, we bailed out a lot of very rich people on Wall Street, perhaps in the interest of saving jobs, but the bills we'll have to pay in the form of higher taxes and serious inflation make it look like the government really doesn't give a crap about mere workers and consumers anymore. But I digress.) to separate church and state, and make sure that natural interfaces remain open.

In the meantime, I think we need more app stores like the venerable Handango, that are independent of vendors. Competition, as is always the case, is the key to making sure we're getting the most, and the most for our money.

This story, "App Stores Are Not Democracies" was originally published by Network World.

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