Sunday, August 23, 2009

App stores: mega-cathedral and small bazaar

Since I'm not a market moving-pundit, I won’t attempt to provide the definitive analysis of Friday’s filings by Apple, AT&T and Google in the Google Voice/iPhone App Store controversy. Business Week and the NYT have less impassioned reports than most of the blogosphere.

But stepping back a few feet (say to the 10,000' perspective), it seems as though — to use the Eric Raymond over-stylized typology† — the Android Market is a nascent bazaar and iPhone App Store is a much bigger, more popular and more carefully controlled cathedral. This difference could end up being as (or more) radical than the open source differences claimed by ESR more than a decade ago.

While Google (like Sun 15 years ago) often claims to be “open,” the company that wants the entire universe available as a freely-searchable text file has not released their reply directly (e.g. on the Google public policy blog). A purported version of the redacted Aug. 21 Google filing includes this answer to an FCC series of questions:

Please provide a description of the standards for considering and approving applications with respect to Google’s Android platform. …

The Android market is an open distribution channel for developers seeking to get their Android applications into the hands of users. As such, there is no pre-approval process conducted by Google or any third-party before applications submitted by a registered developer … are available for download by users.

Once an application has been uploaded by the developer … the Android Market community is relied upon to flag applications that do not abide by our policies.

An application could be removed from the Android Market if it is found to violate Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement … or Google’s Content Policies. … Approximately 1 percent of all applications that have been uploaded to Android Market and made available to customers subsequently have been taken down by Google. The majority of these applications have been removed after being flagged by users for containing impermissible adult content, or in response to valid Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) notices from rights-holders.
In other words, as with everything else it wants to scale, Google doesn’t want to pay an incremental penny of labor, but instead relies on free user labor to do almost all of the app evaluations.

Meanwhile, this is the Apple description of the comparable process.
What other applications have been rejected for use on the iPhone and for what reasons?

In a little more than a year, the App Store has grown to become the world’s largest wireless applications store, with over 65,000 applications. We’ve rejected applications for a variety of reasons. Most rejections are based on the application containing quality issues or software bugs, while other rejections involve protecting consumer privacy, safeguarding children from inappropriate content, and avoiding applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone. Given the volume and variety of technical issues, most of the review process is consumed with quality issues and software bugs, and providing feedback to developers so they can fix applications. Applications that are fixed and resubmitted are approved.

The following is a list of representative applications that have been rejected as originally submitted and their current status:

  • Twittelator, by Stone Design Corp., was initially rejected because it crashed during loading, but the developer subsequently fixed the application and it has been approved;
  • iLoveWiFi!, by iCloseBy LLC, was rejected because it used undocumented application protocols (it has not been resubmitted as of the date of this letter);
  • SlingPlayer Mobile, by Sling Media, was initially rejected because redirecting a TV signal to an iPhone using AT&T’s cellular network is prohibited by AT&T’s customer Terms of Service, but the developer subsequently fixed the application to use WiFi only and it has been approved; and
  • Lingerie Fantasy Video (Lite), by On The Go Girls, LLC, was initially rejected because it displayed nudity and explicit sexual content, but the developer subsequently fixed the application and it has been approved with the use of a 17+ age rating.
I found the candor here to be refreshing for Apple, particularly in explaining the notorious SlingPlayer case.

I find troubling the precedent about “undocumented” APIs, since this seems to be a business decision rather than a technical or security one. There was lots of Mac software that could not have shipped without using undocumented backdoors — we certainly depended on it, as did many other system software companies. Yes, the iPhone architecture is newer and better, but inherently there will be system APIs that are useful to certain utilities while not published to the average application. Microsoft faced potential antitrust trouble for allowing its own apps but not competing apps to use undocumented APIs, although the iPhone is unlikely to be subject to antitrust action because it lacks the Windows market share.

Is Apple the most onerous gatekeeper for app developers? Hardly. US carriers are the worst, which approve less than 50% and often take 6 months or more. The Apple filing implies its app store accepts 80% (or 95%) of applications on first try, and the vast majority in two weeks.

Will other app stores go for Android’s wide-open, anything-goes approach — equivalent to Guy Kawasaki’s “ask forgiveness, not permission”? Or will they still go for a a manual, discretionary approval process? Right now the BlackBerry App World and Nokia Ovi Store seem to differ from the iPhone (if at all) only in degree rather than a core idea of control.

If anyone were going to go for the open source, self-policing community, it should be the open source stewards at the Symbian Foundation. However, right now they seem to be planning an even more controlled model than Apple or RIM (perhaps only temporarily). Also, if the Symbian Horizon is only available to users through other portals (such as Ovi or carriers), then developers may enjoy two shots at rejection rather than the one that Apple or RIM offer.

Even if discretionary policing is the norm for almost any distribution channel, one zinger in the Google response hints at the potential monopsony abuse by Apple:
…it is important to note that the Android Market is not the exclusive method for distribution of Android applications. Developers are free to make their applications available through alternative channels instead of, or in addition to, the Android Market, and users are free to install Android applications from any source they choose.
Will it be OK for any ecosystem member to claim a monopoly on distribution channels for their platform or customers? (This has been the norm, for example, with Japanese keitai operators.) If the monopoly is examined, is it justified by security or quality concerns, or merely a desire to capture all the distribution margin for third party applications?

As an open source project, Android is open in only one dimension (IP) of the three dimensions of openness. However, as a platform, their model for distributing third party applications is potentially more radical in its conception (and impact) than anything Apple has done thus far with either the iPod or iPhone.

† The Linux “bazaar” is much more hierarchical than the ESR typology claims, and the BSD “cathedral” is not as hierarchical as claimed.

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