Developers are rightly troubled by the often draconian-seeming policies at Apple's iPhone App Store. But according to analysts at Forrester Research, Apple's model represents more than just an overweening SDK license agreement. It's an entirely new relationship between software vendors and consumers, one that Forrester has dubbed "curated computing."
According to Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, curated computing is "a mode of computing in which choice is constrained to deliver more relevant, less complex experiences." Moreover, she says, this new mode is essential to the success of tablets, wearable computers, smart TVs, and other form factors. For example, although Microsoft introduced tablet devices running Windows years ago, the tablet form factor was never really viable until the introduction of the iPad, and Epps believes the iPad's success is directly attributable to Apple's curated computing approach.
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Apple's competitors seem to think so, too. Every smartphone platform now features an app store much like Apple's, and all enforce choice constraints to some degree -- even if it's only to remove apps flagged as malware. And with Microsoft rumored to be planning an integrated app store for Windows 8, it's reasonable to expect some form of curated computing will soon arrive on the desktop as well.
But while Forrester and the platform vendors tout their vision of the curated computing future as a boon to consumers, its value to developers is questionable at best. Although it's true that app stores make it easy for potential customers to find and purchase apps, the curated computing model also undermines independent developers' interests in 10 alarming ways:
1. The platform vendor gets a big cut of the profits. All retailers mark up the prices of the products they sell, but the curated model allows platform vendors to insert themselves into independent developers' revenue streams like never before. Apple has no physical stores for apps and it maintains no inventory, so it takes only minimal risks, yet it skims nearly a third of the asking price of every app sold through the iTunes Store. Good luck negotiating a better deal, and if Apple decides to change its terms in the future, it can do so unilaterally.
2. The curator has veto powers. Apple likes to paint its curators as benevolent librarians keeping smut off the shelves, but they're really much more like censors. Apple's dubious track record of banning apps has been well documented and much discussed. Many apps are approved upon appeal, but there's no formal process, and the final decision is always Apple's.
3. Developers must compete with platform vendors. One of the terms of Apple's license agreement is that developers cannot write apps that duplicate the functionality of Apple's own software. Has any previous platform vendor been so brazenly anticompetitive? Not even Microsoft went as far as to ban Netscape from writing a browser for Windows.
4. Apps on an app store can be hard to market. Word-of-mouth marketing seemed to work well in the early days of iPhone apps, but as the App Store catalog has swelled -- it now boasts more than 250,000 apps -- many developers believe their offerings are getting lost in the shuffle. And because Apple always gets the same cut of sales, no matter whose apps are selling, it has little incentive to help.