App and Digital Stores – Much More to be Done

This note focuses on the current rumble about the App Store on Apple devices. It is like a fight between a trillion-dollar company and a billion-dollar company. Then others have joined the fray as well. Some are quoting indie or artisanal developers others invoking small-medium businesses and so on. It remains a fight between massive companies with different levels of scale. I am not particularly keen on any commercial point of view that these companies have offered. 

Apparently, a full generation of teens and younger kids are going to be alienated and left adrift because of the actions of one company. Further, there are concerns of fundamental freedoms for consumers, developers and well the trope of hurting small businesses. This topic is spreading in the technology and business news cycle because of disagreements on how app stores function. Since this is about young children and teens, you might have also read that there are close to 14 million children on Tiktok in just the US; they should not even be on these platforms! This makes one wonder about numbers for other countries. The global health crisis has meant more digital services are being used to improve learning experiences. There is going to be greater emphasis on digital learning, new services and well algorithms are also in the news for unfairly impacting students. 

What interests me is the data safety, privacy practices and the due diligence practices of companies that offer these services. These issues increasingly form the basis of the choices that customers make when signing up for digital services. 

The early days

In the early days of computing, the viability of software and gaming businesses was undoubtedly a big challenge. The addressable market that was buying these exciting new products was small. Some of it was because of lack of devices and fairly rampant software piracy issues. At that time, Nasscom and some of the biggest companies of the time started a campaign to encourage and coerce users to use genuine software. Copy protection mechanisms became a business opportunity for some companies who made hardware dongles for integration into other software. 

Finding what we wanted

Where did customers go to buy? The options were few. Typically the hardware retail vendor had some software they either bundled or sold separately. If you were a small software vendor, you were possibly limited to offering your software in some computer magazine CDs and so on. There were many software compatibility issues and crashing computers because the software had compatibility issues were faced often. So where was the support? Less said, the better. Further, it wasn’t particularly comfortable for these companies to get their software on these CDs either. 

The browser brought upon the era of software downloads from internet sites. And so, sure enough, there was software to be had with all kinds of features. With that came the risk of malware too as there was barely any due diligence or checking. It was a marketplace of links. The more links you had on your site, the more the traffic it could potentially get. Then emerged virus and malware preventive tools that took the task of blocking out known issues. The browsers also brought about a unique new plugin approach and search plus service bars. Everyone wanted to be on the browser bar of the user; so they offered their tools. These services were also the equivalent of spyware and had things like keyloggers and some other nefarious tools as well. They caused a lot of harm and there was not enough protection either. Typically the person who suffered was blamed for their lack of knowledge. 

In parallel, there was the open-source movement that was taking the tech world by storm. You could theoretically get free or open-source software developed by a community. While this did a world of good, you had to be technically savvy to understand what to use and how to use it. 

Discoverability remains an issue

Discoverability of apps, services and businesses has always been a big issue. I am reminded of a project where we studied e-Agriculture,/mAgri solutions launched in various African countries. The 118 Apps we found addressed 59 problem areas but most had a very low adoption rate, and in fact, most of the intended audience was not even aware of them. So technically web-based aggregators existed but were not particularly useful for a whole range of reasons.

And then the iPhone was launched and soon after Android-based phones reimagined the experience. Nokia and Blackberry were never the same dominant mobile companies. We have happy memories of Nokia devices but also remember that each device had mostly the same set of apps. In ten years of owning a Nokia phone, I purchased one app and that too because there was a specific feature I needed and didn’t want to buy a new phone. It was challenging to obtain, and that’s all I remember of it. In 2007, one of our clients wanted a business app custom developed and to be installed on the leadership team’s Blackberry devices globally. It took the company 20 days to respond and they said that the app couldn’t be installed unless the client purchased 10,000 more devices. 

The App Store changed things a bit. Now, there is a place to go and find apps. There is a place for developers to figure out how to be on the platform. Likewise, it works broadly in similar terms for the Play store as well. 

Managed ecosystems

And for a counter-intuitive reason, I want to talk about WordPress. Some of the history mentioned above is also concurrent with the timeline of this platform. From the earliest days, you could customise it any way you wanted and then make your site. It has a broad base of indie developers who make plugins, themes and in recent times, subscription-based services. All the flexibility means you also have to manage the risks. Users can buy plugins and ideas from a large number of sites. But again the whetting and due diligence of safety features are not quite there. They are just marketplaces. You buy at your own risk and are required to check. In a way, the freedom to install anything and everything has created security issues. Users need to understand the safety issues. It has created an opportunity for companies to offer managed services and now the parent company of WordPress offers Jetpack. You can use a specific set of services and tools to achieve your goals. These tools have been ratified and are offered as secure. This further reduces the complexity that has crept into the writing or site management process. In a sense, the service is locking down the experience to be able to provide more consistency and security. I have a simple rule, go for the managed service because it offers you updates, security scans and backups. 

You are free to install software from any vendor and customise your laptop or desktop. This provides flexibility but it also means the app model model is not successful here. Still from a process standpoint, I prefer to download apps from the respective stores, i.e. Mac or Windows whenever possible. They offer regular updates and technical assurance that safety processes are followed. 

In the enterprise space, you can see similar efforts to extend applications via the partner programmes of every major platform. Corporate technology departments generally seek to lock down devices and even restrict access to specific functionality. It ensures the equipment and related data is safe. 

In the recent rumble, some big company CEOs have referred to the indie developers and small businesses and how it hurts them. It would be interesting to see how big company projects have copied from smaller indie developers and converted them into product features. No credit or money ever is given, and the smaller business has to fend for themselves against these behemoths. Their reasoning is rather weak. Instead, one has to look at track records of customer protection, safety practices, support for communities and businesses. 

Experiences that matter

From a customer standpoint, the store and apps model feels like a reasonably well-run service:

  • Consistent experience and integrated payment
  • Product trial, subscription management 

The developers have guidelines, APIs to follow to and payments are received within this relationship. And there is undoubtedly a charge. Some excluded developers or companies feel aggrieved about it as well. This kind of situation exists now in pretty much every store format. The terms that each company has set follow somewhat similar parameters for each of their developer partners/vendors/businesses. Some take more of percentage and some are grappling with other means of revenue maximisation. It’s the people who are left out of the equation that are grappling with how to create a competitive plan either with the kind of bluster on show at the moment or perhaps policy tweaks. 

I like the Apple app approach for now because the whole experience feels reasonably safe. I like how the app permission process works for customers. One had seen them focus on privacy when it seemed the tech world was going into a different narrative. So if one can afford it, the current out of the box approach is more integrated and locked down. It’s not a bad thing either, because a lot of people are grappling with new digital skills and still need to figure out how to make their digital presence safer. 

What could happen

In iOS 14, I am curious about the impact of their nutrition styled data labels. The privacy information of each app would be available, and developers will have to self report how data is being collected and used to track a customer across companies. This will likely change customer behaviour because for now customers do not know how their data is being used or tracked. An app is also now going to be required to get explicit permission to track a user. This should further change customer behaviour. The impact on ad tech and monetisation plans of developers will certainly make them think of alternative revenue models. Does this perhaps explain the vociferous rush to want an alternative to the App Store on the iOS platform? 

So, would the new changes that come about just be in the name of consumer choice? Or could we be looking at country level app stores managed by the local provider, perhaps a dominant telco or entertainment company? This could well be a direction that one might experience given the mood to secure local data within the country’s borders. The possible experiences and implications for the dominant platforms are worth debating and detailing. 

Further, will there be a choice for the customer to go with default App Store and a specific partner for categories like games, entertainment, education and maybe even smart devices? This is undoubtedly the time to think about these issues. 

All this has further implications for other sectors who are thinking about stores or integrating with stores. So yes, while competition is good, how do we figure out a safe environment for all and still have healthy competition and safe practices?

For a world that is enamoured with data, we need trustees of better safety and digital practices for all. It would be good for the incumbents in each category to think about their track record. The store conversation is also a conversation about the young children, students, families, indie developers, smaller businesses and the social ecosystem. Who can all these stakeholders consider to be a trustee of their well being? Perhaps that’s what the new brand promise needs to be.