Only Apple can get away with App Stores
It's a Flash™ in the Pan
There are certain words I try and avoid when writing, because they confuse more than they enlighten. Terms such as "Business model", "Sustainability" and "Platform" are not just self-serving jargon - the real meaning is the opposite of what is intended. Well, even before this week, I expected the term "Mobile App Store" to be heading the same way.
News of yet another Mobile App Store - this time from a sprawling alliance of mobile networks and Asian handset manufacturers - has been met a shrug of collective indifference. It's one of those things you just know is going to be a flop, simply from the track record, motivations and offerings of the people involved.
Indeed there's evidence that far from being the next gold rush, App Stores were only going to be a pretty minor part of the landscape, and only for a tiny number of players. It's just that most people in the mobile industry don't want to see it that way - opportunism triumphs over common sense.
Let's be honest, the App Store is a phenomenon unique to the iPhone, and it owes much to the singular appeal of the iPhone, whatever you think of it. It's different enough from its predecessors to create a lot of enthusiasm. It may be true that Apple wrapped up a lot of existing technology in the iPhone (lagging behind the market leaders in specifications), but it's irrelevant. The multitouch user experience is so superior, it actually makes people want to use the web, maps, and, yes the App Store.
But the reason there's a market at all is also down to Apple's decision to ban Flash and Java applications. So those little novelty web pages where you can watch dancing hamsters, play Blackjack or rate Hotties for their Hotness, don't work in Safari, and must become Dancing Hamster, Blackjack or Hotness Ratings apps. Of course now you can take your pick from many useful and high quality apps for the iPhone too. Apple created an artificial scarcity and guided supply and demand through a channel it controls completely. Who guessed there was a billion-dollars-a-year worth of value lurking underneath?
App Store Developers may chafe at the margins and the medieval nature of the approval process, but Apple has put them in touch with real money - they're finally at the races.
The problem facing rivals such as telcos, and manufacturers such as Nokia and the Android OEMs, is that they don't have the control Apple does, and their devices aren't compelling enough. Imagine the reaction if Vodafone, for example, banned Flash tomorrow. Nokia is committed to being "open" and with Maemo and Symbian has been as good as its word. But can you imagine Nokia banning Java, just to drum up a bit of interest in Ovi?
What was announced yesterday should have been drawn up a decade ago - years in which users have had to tolerate dysfunctional offerings such as operator portals, or Nokia Download. But if I was in charge of either, I wouldn't be holding my breath.
Don't get me wrong, I think running some kind of Store will be mandatory, just like running a Customer Service line is mandatory. But when they see how little money they get, it will be done just as grudgingly.
Apple's success in creating a billion dollars seemingly out of nothing just reminds developers how hard it is to make pennies from the Web. But if you've studied the economics of Facebook or Twitter, you know that anyway. ®
Colly Myers wrote a must-read post about App Stores late last year, here. Networks don't really want you to run apps, he reckons.
Finally, spot on
That is also the exact reason why the iPhone delivers a superior user experience.
The same story repeats again and again and again with many other lousy flash websites. They had to be sanitised to work on iPhone use a sane amount of RAM and generally be stable and work. It is just a basic quality assurance provided by Apple as a part of the approval process. As a result idiotisms like using 192MB of RAM to display the weather forecast for you area or the aforementioned dancing hamsters can never make it. And guess what - the user loves it.
So banning flash and java is one of the best things Apple ever did and it should continue to do so. It could not ban bad software engineers so it did the second best thing it could do. Quite successfully as well.
I've worked on the build and implementation of mobile-commerce stores for numerous global mobile network operators, as well as brands such as Yahoo and Skype. Some of these mobile storefronts were extremely advanced compared to the very limited functionality of the Apple App Store. Having studied user behaviours, analysed the stats, click-tracked users throughout the storefronts, and spent some months investigating point-of-sale techniques and tricks from the offline retail environments, I am quite surprised at the success of the Apple App Store. There are a number of key differences to this store compared to all the other offerings though:
1. Billing the credit card - clear simple pricing model, and easy payment mechanism, already active for a huge majority of Apple fans, previously using iTunes
2. Only 1 version of each product is required. Stocking a single game in, let's say, AT&T's storefront is much more complex. There are thousands of completely different devices hitting the same store, so you actually need hundreds, possibly thousands of bespoke versions of that game to ensure good handset support. Obviously, you don't want to list the same game thousands of times, so you need clever device detection logic, as well as a smart database to keep track of all the versions of the game. On top of that, you need to constantly backfill for new devices, and render the storefront itself differently for different devices. It's no mean feat. Already Android developers are complaining about 3 versions of the firmware... 3?! try hitting every phone in the market and 3 suddenly seems pretty straightforward.
3. Following from point 2, the user of the Apple App Store is pretty much guaranteed that everything in that store will work on their phone. Users don't have the same feeling of assurance when entering a traditional mobile retail environment (even if it's actually there!)
4. Smooth touchscreen browsing makes a HUGE difference. Most mobile-commerce sites have to focus on the first screenful or two of offered products. Even Apple app store is heavily biased towards the top 5 free, top 5 paid offering, with digging deeper a pain. If you have to click through these lists, then the 'deeper catalogue' is virtually never touched by users - meaning active management of the storefront is required to keep it fresh.
5. Apple users don't buy music in the app store - this is expected via iTunes. Most mobile-commerce sites place music in all the top slots. With the hassle they've been through licensing content from record labels, and ingesting all of that in numerous formats (again to cover lots of device types) - it's only natural that it's given priority over apps. Back to point 4- anything pushed down the page, or onto a second/thrid/fourth page will rarely, if ever be seen by users - so limited number of applications (rather than music or personalisation products) are ever seen.
6. Advertising! Apple advertised what apps could do - as well as the device itself. Hell, to get half the productivity tools/apps etc my Nokia E55 has out of the box on an iPhone would cost me a fortune and many hours scouring the app store. They don;t promote this though.
My feeling is that Apple are very smart when it comes to keeping it simple. One size fits all.
Additional Reasons for Apple's Success
I can think of a few additional reasons for Apple's success with their App Store:
(not all of them are unique to Apple's App Store)
1. A very small number of devices to target, and they all share the important features (i.e. many apps don't need to leverage the 'unique' bits like digital compass or GPS). But most importantly, the screen size and standard input methods are uniform across the range. This is generally the exact opposite of the situation with other app stores which aim to support every conceivable form of device going.
2. Apps will seamlessly transfer to a new or upgraded iPhone, and between multiple devices that you may own. This makes it easy for people to, for example, transition from an iPod Touch to an iPhone. Again, this ease of transition is typically not the case with other mobile platforms.
3. You don't need your phone to browse or buy apps.
4. The iPod Touch. Consumers are more likely to have an iPod Touch for far longer than a mobile phone, therefore are more willing to invest in applications for it.
5. The iPod Touch (again). I would argue that the vast majority of profit, success, appeal, etc. is due to the iPod Touch and not the iPhone. I have no proof to back this up though.
For any app store to succeed, the vast majority of apps must be available for all supported devices, those apps must not be tied to a single device, and it should be unbelievable easy to browse and buy apps from anywhere. It also helps if you have a huge install base of supported devices.
Android Marketplace seems pretty successful from where I'm sitting. It's rammed with stuff and just about the first question for any non-official Android port is 'does it work with Marketplace?', which is a reasonable indicator of demand, I reckon.
A view from the States
Your two recent articles;
1. Only Apple can get away with App Stores
2. Smoke free Nokia looks for a spark. Pleasing people who never pay for anything. Will this work?
Your articles have brought about some interesting thoughts. Being an avid Apple PC & iPhone user, and a wireless executive for the past 18 years I have some differing opinions.
First, your comments on the Ovi strategy from Niklas and perceived miscues of offering free applications or content. Let us quickly revisit the early days of the Internet. You do remember AOL charging $39.95 to $49.95 a month for their service back in 1996 and onward? Every analyst and observer noted AOL’s huge content or for that matter “killer apps” like email and IM and that no one could possible usurp AOL’s position or strategy. By 1998, 1999 they had “first mover advantage”, they had amassed 80 million subs. Well today AOL can’t even charge $4.95 for their “content or apps”. My children can get it all free from likes of Yahoo, Google, MSN and so on. Today when teenagers have to pay for apps or content online, they seemingly find a way to get it for free. Eventually the free model or pay next to nothing devours the pay model when the two exist in the same market place. The wireless market place will be no different it will only happen much quicker. No one enterprise, carrier or manufacture has a lock on content & apps. You also comment on bottom up strategy for services and Nokia’s lack of bottom up strategy. Interesting… Yet in 1993 at BellSouth meetings they told us that wireless subs would pass land line subs, everyone laughed. In 1996 they said sms texting would not only take off but have a hockey stick curve explosion, we laughed and said it’s a European thing Americas like to talk. In 1999, they said we will put the internet in everyone’s pocket, right... We all know what happen with those examples. Did Apple create a device that made putting the Internet in your pocket a reality? You bet, I carry one and have no complaints. But to dismiss Nokia’s strategy is foolish, not only are they moving where the market will be in the coming years but they are doing it aggressively with a bottom up approach such Nokia Mail and Messaging for the 3.2 billion subs that don’t have a PC or internet connection. Here, we have some 40 million plus subs that don’t have banking access, Nokia Money or a competitive product would be wonderful.
Only Apple can get away with Apps stores? Because they banned flash and Java from their ecosystem? Rather flimsy, maybe they also created a truly turnkey user friendly mobile store front with compelling content for starters. Yet again, to see only Apple as being capable is short sited as were journalist and analyst whom declared no one else can amass AOL’s content, apps and sub base. We all know how that turned out. Thanks for the light hearted reading Andrew.