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DRM-free music dream haunts Apple's app-store lock-in

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Open...and Shut As much as we hate the wireless carriers, we may end up hating the app store vendors even more. Why? Because they create app-level lock-in that inhibits consumers' ability to move to alternative platforms.

While carriers mostly locked in users by blocking phone number portability, today's app stores prevent us from having a direct relationship with the app developer, forcing individuals and families to keep with one platform in order to centralize app purchases.

Don't get me wrong. App stores, for the moment, are really useful for making mobile app purchasing and delivery seamless and easy. While I think they're a brief stopping point on the way to a far more efficient app discovery and distribution medium - namely, the web - they serve a useful purpose today.

Unfortunately, they also serve some pretty pernicious purposes.

Once an app store vendor bills you for a set of apps, it's hard to justify purchasing them again on another platform. I encountered this recently when buying my son a new phone for his birthday. He wanted an Android device, which I was very happy to give him, as I wanted to be able to spend time using it.

One click away from the Samsung Capitvate, however, I stopped. It struck me that we'd have to repurchase all of the apps that he and I share (which include Real Soccer 2011 and Conquest) on our current iOS devices. And once he started buying Android apps, our app purchasing paths would continually diverge. I'm married with four kids: I can't afford too much app divergence. I reluctantly got him an iPhone.

App stores may only take 30 per cent of an app developer's sales, but they claim 100 per cent of the end-user's loyalty. Somehow this doesn't seem like a fair bargain for the app developer or the consumer.

Even as the cloud liberates enterprises and consumers alike from particular hardware, app stores tie users down to one particular platform.

And, no, Apple doesn't have a lock on app store lock-in, though it probably wishes that it could trademark the phrase. Google, Hewlett-Packard with WebOS, and RIM all play the same game.

It's not clear what, if anything, can be done to remedy the situation. No one wants to go back to the (ugly, limited functionality) walled gardens that carriers imposed on their customers for years.

Perhaps the answer lies with the Financial Times, which spurred Apple to ease its app purchasing restrictions by introducing an HTML5 web app that bypasses the App Store entirely. The Financial Times, not Apple, now owns its customer relationships, and can offer the FT experience on a wide variety of platforms, including iOS and Android.

This is a start, but some apps don't yet lend themselves well to an HTML5 approach. Even for those that do, most developers don't want to bypass app stores, preferring a multi-channel distribution strategy that enables them to reach their customers wherever they happen to be.

But that's the point: the customers are the app developers' customers, not really Apple's or Google's. Microsoft may have run a fantastically profitable Windows monopoly for years, but it never attempted to intermediate the developer/user experience in the way the app store providers are.

The ideal might be to allow consumers to purchase the right to install their app on a number of different platforms. Personally, I'd be happy to pay a premium so as to have app portability. While I doubt the app store providers are going to volunteer this right to end-users, perhaps if enough Financial Times-esque app vendors demand a direct relationship with their customers, either through HTML5 or some other means, the app stores will have no choice but succumb.

This would be poetic justice for Apple, which pushed the music industry into accepting DRM-free music, to see apps become "app store-free," too. One can hope. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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