Apple’s latest round of App Store capriciousness indicates a huge threat to their long-term future.
Apple certainly has it’s share of naysayers and doom-predictors, and there’s no shortage of people who are waiting in line to give Tim Cook advice (or call for his replacement). In general, I would disagree with all of that. Tim Cook has done a remarkable job at keeping Apple’s identity intact post-Jobs, and his operational skills are simply unmatched anywhere. Furthermore, Apple’s singular focus on that overall experience of it’s users is what makes it a special company. Ben Thompson argues eloquently that this is precisely why they are able to maintain such high margins that should (according to theory) be impossible.
But the past few weeks have exposed a major weakness of Apple: the capricious nature of it’s App Store policies. For those who haven’t heard, let’s recap: It started with the App Store feature, then rejection (and later reversal) of PCalc’s Notification widget. Next up was Launcher from Cromulent Labs – again featured and later removed, but not reversed. And then this week, Panic was asked to remove functionality from their iOS app Transmit. This sparked reactions from Joe Cieplinski, Ole Begemann, and Marco Arment – whose blog has been mostly focused on Apple chastisement this week. These (especially Panic, Ole, and Marco) are big names in the Apple development community and voices that are iOS-exclusive and generally pro-Apple.
Apple’s app review process exists to, ostensibly, protect users from poorly functioning, misleading, or downright malicious apps. But the cases above were simply novel, and really can’t be construed as anything worthy of protection – several of them did something in exactly the same way as Apple’s built-in apps like Stocks. Meanwhile, the other big piece of news this past week was Twitter openly abusing a low level unix function to spy on its user’s installed apps. Facebook and Google, of course, are doing similar things on iOS, but have the guile to bury it rather than say it directly. Where is the app review team when this was made public knowledge? Why aren’t they “making an example” out of Twitter as they said they wanted to do with Launcher?
The result is a fog of confusion over every developer who wants to create something unique and new. Will top notch developers pour months and months of their hard work into something only to find it’s utterly useless and can’t be deployed because there was a inscrutable, bureaucratic, unwritten law they violated? When Apple discourages innovative apps, they are optimizing for run-of-the-mill apps that will easily be ported across to Android as well. Apps are a critical part of the aforementioned gap in overall experience that maintains Apple’s high margins. It’s specifically the “oh, hadn’t thought of that” apps that Apple can’t build itself and should nurture, not destroy.
This isn’t entirely hypothetical. With the iPad lagging and starting to stagnate, it’s worth questioning if anyone shelved a truly innovative app because they weren’t sure it would make it past Apple’s review. Clearly the iPad is an amazing, well-designed, meticulously built device, but if it loses the exciting and innovative apps that bring it to life, it’s just a very expensive coaster.