App Store Politics: Dictatorship Versus Democracy

Two big announcements this week will change the way you get software on your desktop and in your web browser. Apple announced their upcoming App Store for the Mac, and Mozilla (developers of the Firefox browser) revealed its technical plans for implementing a webapp store. Both will offer an easier way to get quality apps, but they're going about it in very different ways: one as a dictatorship and the other, a democracy.

Why All the Politics?

You can already download software from sites across the web after entering the numbers on your credit card, and those are stores which sell software applications. But the "app store" we're talking about here is a relatively new marketing term for an old concept. An app store is a central place for users to find, purchase, install and update software applications from a variety of vendors. An app store gives users a guide to the "best" apps available, saving them the work of doing the research themselves. Users enter payment information into an app store once and can purchase software with a single click or tap from then on. The purchase and install process is quick, painless, and always the same. App stores give developers a way to reach a large customer base easily. In return, app store owners get a cut of all sales (in Apple's case, 30%).

App stores break down the barriers between getting software to customers and payments to developers. This is a Good Thing. If you're an innovative software developer with a great product, you can make bank thanks to a popular app store—provided that store will list your app, that is. Therein lies the rub. There are two divergent models for running app stores now: with a gatekeeper who has final say on what appears in that store, or with open shelves that the community and store owners curate through reviews and ranking.

App Store Democracy: The Mozilla Model

This week Mozilla Labs published this video, which details its new experiment for making the browser an app store in and of itself for web applications. As a developer, to make your webapp available to the store, you add a snippet of code to your site (no approval process required). As a user, you go to an app store run by someone you trust, and get that same unified purchase and install experience regardless of provider. Here's the demo.

This functionality will make it easy for anyone to become an app store maker, and one of its core goals is open distribution of apps. Any developer can get an app listed in any number of stores, and the app store will provide tools like reviews and rankings to help the community and editors curate that store.

Mozilla's plans create an experience very similar to Google's upcoming Chrome Web Store, but they're even more "open" platform-wise: while Chrome's webapp store installation process will only work fully in Chrome, Mozilla's technology will work in any modern browser. 

App Store Dictatorship: The Apple Approach

Contrast Mozilla's distributed open webapp ecosystem with the Mac App Store's top-down model. Just as it is on the iPhone and iPad, the App Store for Mac will be fully controlled and curated by Apple itself, whose infamous app approval process is a double-edged sword. Ask some people and they'll tell you it keeps the store's listing high quality. Ask others, and you'll hear that it blocks good apps for suspicious reasons. (The incredible Google Voice app still isn't available on the iPhone.) The Mac App Store's developer guidelines are similar to the iPhone/iPad App Store's, rife with potential gotchas that could keep good apps out. Do you trust Apple to make the best recommendations? No doubt most users will. Developers, however, are understandably wary.

Unlike on the iPhone and iPad, the Mac App Store won't be the only way to get new apps on your desktop. You'll still be able to purchase and download apps directly from great developers like Bare Bones, Panic, Cultured Code and Atebits. Still, Mac app developers across the web will anxiously await approval from the Apple gods to get placement in the default Mac App Store (even if scrappy developers do cook up an alternative). Prepare yourself for more outraged "Apple rejected my app for no good reason" stories.

Comparing the Mac App Store to Mozilla's Open Web Applications demo is admittedly apples-to-oranges. Mozilla's technology is a toolset for anyone to create an app store, and Apple's Mac App Store is an app store.

But the rules of each set of roads are clear, and they affect users and developers alike. In the end, the success of these new distribution channels will be measured in dollars and cents, but the cultural differences are way more interesting.

Gina Trapani looks forward to patronizing app stores that feature both open distribution and great curation. Follow @ginatrapani on Twitter.

Related: The Great App Bubble

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  • JohnnySmith0

    Finally, companies like Mozilla, Google and Opera are gaining their momentum for all their hard work. And I for one can not help but love it. Sure, "Web apps" are still probably far ahead in the future, but we all know that "Web apps" are the future and traditional apps may be long dead.

    This whole "democratic" approach reminds me of BitTorrent... where users connect to each other in such an exquisite way. Nothing goes to waste because everybody lends a little bit of power to everyone else. We don't just receive all the information from a single giant entity, we receive all kinds of information from everybody else.

  • Anthony Morganti

    Gina, I have great respect for you and your work. Over the years I've read your articles and watch you on TWIG. Your articulate insight has been a great benefit to a self-proclaimed entrepreneur such as myself. I know you're a tremendous propagandist of Open Source and Open Web and appreciate your efforts.

    I also know that there are many aspects of Apple that you don't care for -- must notably their walled garden approach to software curation. In this article I can see you very carefully attempted, perhaps even strained, to give an even handed comparison of the two disparate methodologies.

    Unfortunately, comparisons done in this manner rarely work and often serve to merely draw a line for people to take sides. When writers say negative things about a company or methodology; well, it does little to help champion the alternative company or methodology but instead serves to incense those who subscribe to the former. This is akin to mudslinging in a political campaign and studies have shown this type of boosterism rarely works.

    I look forward to reading articles from you that promulgate your enthusiasm for open source and open web! I would like to read a more detailed article about the Mozilla and Google App Store models and how they will benefit someone like me -- I know you can write a super-enthusiastic yet informative article such as that without mentioning "Apple" once!

  • doog

    So, basically Apple's app market will be Costco and Mozilla's will be a flea market? I guess that flea markets are more interesting than Costco, but I think Costco works out better for both consumers, vendors and, of course, Costco.

  • Gina Trapani

    I'm not saying that dictatorships are inherently bad. My life is a dictatorship. The open source project that I run is a dictatorship--open to feedback with transparent decision-making processes, but a dictatorship nonetheless.

    I just don't trust online retailers who explicitly decide NOT to incorporate community participation into their decision-making process when there are simple and plentiful tools for doing so. Apple's approach is traditional brick-and-mortar and it works well for them.

    I just think the democratic web way is more interesting.

  • TimTheFoolMan

    There is a phrase that has been attributed as an ancient Chinese curse: "May you always live in interesting times."

    The democratic web is, in that manner, very interesting. A non-curated experience *should* be more interesting.

    At the same time, wanting a curated experience, because of its (relative) safety from certain types of problems is going to make it a better option for non-technical users. Don't you wish that most of the pre-SP3 XP machines were running in a curated environment, where the users didn't have the option of becoming part of a massive botnet?

    For techies & geeks, Android & "democratic" systems are going to be more comfortable. For the average consumer, the current PC environments and distribution models have proven to be "average Joe" disasters for security, in sharp contrast to what we've seen so far in the iPhone world.

  • Laurence Gonsalves

    Scott: yes, Best Buy is also a dictatorship. You know that old adage, "my home is my castle"? It's the same for your typical private business: a store is run effectively as a dictatorship. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, so long as consumers have the choice to go elsewhere and the dictatorship doesn't get so much power that they end up destroying other choices (think of all of the controversy around Walmart a few years ago).

    I don't think Apple running their Mac App Store "as a dictatorship" is necessarily a bad thing, but there are a few things that I find troubling. First of all, Apple is obviously in a position of power that a typical retailer wouldn't be in. Also, Apple has provided countless examples of bad judgement when creating policies for the iOS App Store. Will the Mac App Store have similarly bad policy decisions? They've already said they reserve the right to reject things from the Mac App Store for no reason at all. The rule about not having similar functionality as existing apps also seems like a great way to stifle innovation. What if someone comes along with a *better* app for doing something that an existing app can also do, albeit not as well?

    With iOS devices, jailbreaking/rooting isn't a legitimate alternative. That's like saying a Prius can go faster than a Ferarri, just hold on while I swap out the engine. Also, Apple doesn't just not support jailbreaking/rooting, they are actually working to disable the exploits that make these possible. Right now the alternative to the iOS App Store is to get a non-Apple device.

  • Scott Francis

    So, when best buy decides what to sell in their store, best buy is a dictatorship? If apple sets up a store to buy apps, they can decide what they sell. Just like Amazon and everyone else when they set up their own stores. This is called retailing.

    (even on an iphone or ipod touch, you can get apps without going through the appstore. you can be a developer, and install them that way, or you can jailbreak/root your phone and do that. it is unsupported but that isn't the same thing as "not possible")