Addendum on loose coupling and the iOS App Store

In yesterday’s doodle, I left out a note on why I positioned the iOS App Store in the upper right hand corner.

The greatest contrast between services like Facebook and the iOS App Store isn’t that app providers have access to greater capabilities than your average social media content provider but that the App Store is overall a liability for Apple, although I’m not sure that Apple recognises it as such. Even if it did, it’s stuck with the App Store as getting rid of it would be next to impossible without damaging the platform.

A tightly integrated App Store that is the sole method for distributing an app to a platform offers two benefits for the platform owner.

The third advantage is a percieved advantage only. It is largely a faith-based ideological belief with no economic foundation:

Apple’s first big issue with the App Store is that the benefits come attached to major liabilities that largely undermine the value they are getting from it.

There’s more:

The App Store is a major liability and Apple is kind of screwed on this. Unless they change something, they will be forced to implement more and more productivity and business features themselves to stay competitive.

One possibility would be to solve this problem the same way that Google has with Android.

No, I don’t mean that they should open their app store up be be more like Android’s. That app store has many of the same problems as iOS’s. What Google has done is iterate on and generally improved the web as an app platform with Mozilla, Microsoft, and Opera all following suit.

The web has a security model of its own that bypasses many of the limitations of locally installed executables (largely by policing the capabilities of the apps instead of policing the sourcing of the app as app stores do). There’s already a precedent for Apple not to police the contents of the browser so it gets them out of the cultural police game. It’s an incredibly loosely coupled platform which lets developers choose the business model and strategy that they want and gives them the flexibility to adapt when circumstances change. It has marginally fewer capabilities but the gap has narrowed dramatically over the past two years.

To put it plainly: Google, Mozilla, and Microsoft are iterating the web faster together than they are iterating the API capabilities of their app platforms individually.

(Mozilla having given up on their mobile OS aspirations entirely.)

The web was and is behind native apps. But the API capabilities of app platform have overshot the requirements of most apps substantially. Progressive web apps are already good enough for many apps, are cheaper to make cross-platform, and degrade gracefully in legacy platforms. They combine reach and flexibility in ways that native apps can’t match.

The downside to supporting Progressive Web Apps is that they are aggressively cross platform. A killer progressive web app adds value to all supporting platforms, which undermines the competitive value of supporting PWAs in general.

But most modern killer apps are industry-specific and highly specialised. The incentives of most app developers mean that they are unlikely to create apps for a single platform anyway unless their particular industry has standardised on a single OS throughout. Many developers are currently forced to build custom apps for every platform, which instantly destroys the long term viability of many companies.

The alternative for them is to build just one app: a Progressive Web App that will work like a native app everywhere except on iOS, where it will offer a functional but degraded experience.

The choice for Apple isn’t between having exclusive access to exciting new apps on the one hand and sharing those apps with other platforms on the other. The choice is between being the worst platform for the business apps everybody is using or being just as good as the rest, while continuing to differentiate on hardware and User Experience.

I strongly believe that if Apple does not decide to go all in on Progressive Web Apps at some point over the next twelve months, this will be seen as the moment when the iPhone turned into post-iPhone Nokia.