Sunday, March 28, 2010

The App Store is evil. And I love it.

Apple's App Store is the perhaps the most brilliant innovation in software distribution ever. In case you've been living in a cave, the App Store lets iPhone and iPod Touch (and soon, iPad) users download and install apps directly on their device. This has absolutely revolutionized the way that software applications are marketed and sold. With a single tap you can download an app and the price is automatically billed to your credit card. The best part is that Apple gets to keep 30% of the app price. So, every sale of the $900 iRa Pro app nets Apple $270. They must be raking it in!

Before the App Store, installing apps on mobile devices was a huge pain. My old Windows CE PDA required that you download a ZIP file to your Windows machine (a deal-killer right there), unpack it, run a wizard, physically tether the PDA to the PC, go through several steps to complete the installation, and usually reboot a couple of times for good measure. Any time the PDA's battery ran out I had to create a new device profile in Windows and re-install the apps by hand. It was totally broken and it is unsurprising that the application market did not exactly take off on these platforms. On the App Store, a purchase is just a tap away. I'll admit to have bought quite a few iPhone apps on a whim, maybe because I was about to board a flight and wanted a new game to try out. Dropping 99 cents on a new app does not seem like a big deal at the time, but if I were to add up all my app purchases in the last year, the total is no doubt in the triple digits.

Of course, the App Store is also blatantly, totally evil. It gives Apple a monopoly on the software distribution channel. Now, I'm all for quality control -- it's nice that Apple is trying to screen apps to ensure some modicum of sanity, and perhaps to screen out trojans and such -- but this is going to have a profound effect on how developers and users interact in the future. Essentially, the App Store means that the person owning the device has no control over what software can and can't be installed on that device. This is a huge philosophical shift from our current model, in which the hardware manufacturer, OS developer, and application developers were all separate entities. Apple is doing a great job at consolidating power for its platforms, which of course includes not just apps but also music, books, video, and other media.

I'm a big Apple fan boy so I find myself somewhat unnerved by these developments. When it was limited to these little cheesy mobile devices like the iPhone, the totalitarian App Store model did not seem like such a problem. Now it's being expanded for the iPad, and it would not surprise me to see an App Store-like model for conventional desktops and laptops in the future. This has dire implications for freedom and openness, which I think is important for the future of technology. As much as I like Apple's products, I think it's dangerous to let one company decide what we can and can't install on a device. In five years when everyone is using iPads instead of laptops, how are Computer Science students supposed to tinker and learn to program on their own when they have to go through Steve Jobs' army of goons before they can even run their own code?

Of course, I'm eagerly awaiting my iPad delivery this weekend. And I can't wait to drop $5 for the iPad version of Flight Control -- it's going to be awesome!


  1. Matt,

    You really should get a N900. 100% of the benefits of the 'app store' with zero percent of the censorship. Oh, and did I mention it has a free version of flight control?

    -Zach G

  2. Do you really think that everyone will be using iPads instead of laptops in five years? The reason the iPhone and the iPod Touch have done so well is because they let you do *more* than other phones and MP3 players do. The iPad can do far less than a laptop. I don't see it as a laptop replacement at all, and will be surprised if it become anywhere near as popular as the iPhone.

  3. "VoIP News" - I deleted your comment as it was a troll. Unlike the rest of the Internet I intend this blog to be a place for intelligent discussion and won't let it reduce to idiocy. If you want to start a flame war, go somewhere else.

    Zach's comment is getting at the idea that there are alternatives to Apple products that (ideally) preserve more freedom for users and developers. I agree with this, but there's also a substantial tradeoff in terms of usability and functionality. None of the other mobile providers can hold a candle to the 150,000 apps for the iPhone. Now, most of those apps are, well, crap, but the iPhone is far and away the best platform, at least from a design point of view. So I'm torn on this one.

    Adam - I don't seriously believe that laptops are going away, but the question is what happens as our computing platforms become more closed, rather than more open, over time. It wouldn't surprise me to see a netbook/laptop released running a version of the iPad OS and using the closed App Store software model. It is a hell of a lot simpler for Apple to support and they rake in revenue on every application sale. The iPhone is just the beginning.

  4. "Unlike the rest of the Internet I intend this blog to be a place for intelligent discussion and won't let it reduce to idiocy. If you want to start a flame war, go somewhere else."
    --- I wonder what Harry Lewis, will think about this. (By the way, I support your act of deleting such comments.)


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.