Some Thoughts on Application Stores and Openness

In writing down my thoughts on why I switched to Mac from PC, I ended up composing a big rant on the difference between the iOS App Store and the Android App Store from what I hope is a rational cost/benefit perspective. I wanted to post these thoughts separately to protect the flow of that other article and also because I think it is deserving of its own post.

I want to divorce this analysis as much as possible from the iOS App Store and the Android App Store. So I will generically refer to a few different things. There is the application store. This is the store, virtual or physical, from which applications are purchased in order to be installed upon a device. There is the user. This is the person or party who owns the device on which applications will be installed and used. There is the operator. This is the person or party who owns, operates and optionally curates the application store. Curation is the action of managing what is contained and ultimately sold from the application store. When I speak of curation, I’m thinking of the kind that we see in the Apple application stores. I know that the Android application store does remove applications and perhaps even proactively prevents some applications from being listed, but these are rather rare exceptions.

Who benefits from keeping bad apps out of an application store? The user does surely because they can purchase apps without fear. Does the operator benefit? They might sell a few more applications because of the benefit enjoyed by users, but they also might not. Curation, on the other hand, is a huge cost. Each application and every update must be scrutinized by, presumably, both automated and manual processes. So the operator of a curated application store must spend a lot of resources for a benefit enjoyed mostly by the user.

Who benefits from fewer apps in an application store? The user benefits if the apps that are allowed in are of the same variety, similar cost and of generally higher quality. The operator benefits if the apps that are allowed in somehow bring in more revenue than all apps would. Again, curation is not free. So, once again, the operator of a curated application store is spending a lot of resources for a benefit enjoyed mostly if not solely by the user.

Who benefits from an application store that will allow any application with as few restrictions as possible? The user is taking the risk of downloading malicious applications. The user has to judge quality for themselves using their own time and money. The user has to be their own curator. The operator of the application store benefits from allowing in all applications because they have an application store without the cost of curation. The operator benefits because users and volunteers like security researchers will find the bad apps and notify the operator who can then take corrective action reactively. In this scenario, the operator benefits from the users’ and volunteers’ efforts, does not incur the overhead of curation and possibly brings in more revenue because all apps has a chance of making more money than most apps.

One of the costs of curation is that good apps can be thought bad and not allowed in to an application store. Or the operator can use curation as an excuse for barring good applications from the application store that might cost the operator something. These can cost the user the enjoyment or benefit of the good app. Mistakes and maliciousness, from the perspective of the user, are the costs of curation. These can be minimized, if the operator is interested, but perhaps not eliminated. (Maliciousness doesn’t have to be systemic, it could be that an app reviewer sees that their old college nemesis submitted an app and rejects it to “get back at them.”)

Overall, it looks to me like the majority of the costs of the curated approach are borne by the operator and the majority of the benefits are enjoyed by the user. The reverse seems to be true of the uncurated application store. Looking at it from this perspective, I’m beginning to have a new respect for the Apple approach to the application store.


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