Musings on Apple and the App Store


Developers are frustrated with the opaque rules surrounding Apple’s App Store. What should the technology giant do?

The British constitution could thus be summed up in just eight words: what the Queen in Parliament enacts is law.

So wrote Vernon Bogdanor in his book, The New British Constitution. Despite almost every other country deciding a written constitution is a good idea, Britain hasn’t budged. Not for us a separation of powers, not for us checks and balances to ensure no one institution has overarching control. Parliament is sovereign. It won’t even be until October 2009 that the highest appeals court in the country is separate from parliament.

Some people feel strongly about this. In fact, some people have felt strongly about this for a long time. A few thought this centralised system so wrong, so likely to produce tyranny, so at odds with the needs of the people that they told the British government this in no uncertain terms. They fought a war to change the system. Americans now know these men as the Founding Fathers.

Determined not to make the same mistakes as us Brits, the Founding Fathers took the teachings of Montesquieu and Paine and gave different powers to different bodies. They decided those who made the laws couldn’t execute them, those who executed the laws couldn’t write them, and appeals should be made to a third entirely separate and independent body. Those bodies are Congress (the lawmakers), the Office of the President (the executor), and the Supreme Court (the judiciary).

The idea of the separation of powers is a strong and continuing one, even finding its way into popular culture. The comic book Judge Dredd has satirised the problems inherent in one man acting as judge, jury, and executioner. And now there’s another contender: Apple and the App Store.

The Founding Fathers would have recognised the problems inherent in the App Store. Who makes the rules? Apple. Who enforces the rules? Apple. If you think something’s gone wrong, who do you appeal to? Apple. Ah.

Now this state of affairs isn’t unique to Apple. Plenty of companies act like this. And while you may not have any choice in the country you live in, you can certainly choose whether or not to use the App Store.

But there’s recently been a lot of complaints about Apple’s shoddy behaviour — see, for example, There’s no app for that, Where do I sign up?, and The emperor’s new clothes. If Apple want to keep their loyal developers and continue to dominate the music player and smartphone markets, they’re going to need to learn to be much nicer. And they can start by thinking about the separation of powers.

So what should Apple do?

Let’s wander away from the real world for a moment: ideally, Apple would separate the three functions of making the rules for the App Store, enforcing those rules, and deciding appeals. Instead, the rules could be written by App Store developers themselves.

Developers could put themselves up for election, members of the iPhone developers programme could vote for their preferred developers, and the group of elected developers could serve for one year. Their sole purpose would be to update the rules apps need to follow in order enter the App Store. Think of it as similar to an open-source project.

It doesn’t sound likely, does it? Apple would laugh at the suggestion. It’s simply not their style. Equally, they’re not likely to let another body rule on appeals. As much as I’d love to see this happen, it won’t. So let’s be a little more realistic.

Deep down, Apple’s problems stem from its culture of secrecy. Developers are frustrated because they don’t know the what rules Apple are applying. Developers are frustrated because Apple isn’t consistent in its enforcement. Developers are frustrated because the appeals process is either non-existent or again applied consistently.

So what should Apple do? Make the rules freely available. Apply them consistently. Create a proper appeals process. If they won’t separate those powers, at least make them clear, transparent, and as open as possible. Apple will improve their own reputation, that of the App Store and the iPhone developer programme, and developers will be able to see how many (or how few) of the rules are actually causing problems. It will without doubt enhance relations between Apple and its independent developers. It certainly can’t get much worse.

And if Apple don’t do this? Well, many developers are pulling their hair out now; something’s going to give soon. With the United States’ FCC looking into the rejection of the Google Voice app, Apple may not have much choice in the matter. Apple must take action now while it still has the control it so craves.

Thanks a (couple of hundred) million

One final thought: in July this year Apple announced 1,500,000,000 apps had been downloaded from the App Store. Let’s pluck some figures out of the air and say a third of those apps cost money with an average price of $1.50. That’s revenue of $742 million. With Apple taking a thirty per cent cut that gives them nearly $223 million. If these numbers are even roughly correct that’s one million dollars every couple of days. Taking into account the costs incurred in developing and maintaining the App Store that still leaves them with a fairly hefty profit. Apple surely want to protect that. They’re certainly not at the moment.

Now over to you. Do you think Apple are heading for a hiding? What do you think they should being doing?