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Apple’s introduction of its mobile software development kit (SDK) and App Store laid the foundations for the largest technological renaissance of the late 2000s – early 2010s. It gave builders the tools to expose iPhone users to endless utility backed by the innovation of the broader tech community. We have since come a long way. The innovations we witnessed in the earliest days of the app revolution included an optical illusion that made it look like users were drinking a beer from their phones.
A decade and a half later, apps incorporate optical character recognition technology that enables users to take pictures of signs written in Mandarin to translate them to their language of choice. This is technology that is breaking down barriers between languages, enabling everyone to communicate and navigate the world more efficiently.
Somewhere down the line, Apple’s dependency on this outsourced innovation to push broader adoption of its iPhone quickly morphed into an insurmountable vortex of power, enforceable to no end and questioned by no one. With the economic stranglehold that’s enforced on all in-app payments to the unquantifiable risk of being de-platformed, we’re now approaching the point where mobile app builders might be better served forging a path of their own on the web.
Why app stores matter
Although Apple and Google’s control over their app store marketplaces has given them outsized oversight regarding what and how innovators build, the app store at inception introduced countless benefits to both developers and end-users. Perhaps most impactful was that App Stores created the public forum necessary for any healthy marketplace to exist. End-users could go to one central location to download new apps and discover new experiences. On the flip side, developers had a public square where they could acquire and monetize end-users without setting up a unique marketplace to encourage downloads.
Because of the rules and regulations imposed by Apple and Google, app stores, perhaps unintentionally, serve as a screening mechanism for the final product an end-user may end up receiving. You could even go as far as saying the app store introduced what could be seen as the most credible peer-review process; any end-user can view and gauge the credibility of an application before ever downloading it, given reviews from end-users are made available to everyone. Whether it’s assessing the build quality of the app itself or just downside protection against nefarious activity, it’s hard to ignore that it’s because of the app store’s original mission that mobile app development is where it is today.
Why things went wrong
Believe it or not, Steve Jobs was originally against creating open-source development tools as he did not feel that Apple had the resources to properly police app developers. Instead, Jobs was of the opinion that mobile app development should live on the web. Ironically, a little more than a decade later, it’s becoming more clear that with the emergence of new technologies and trends, centralized control over app stores has, at times, stifled growth. What’s more, it goes without saying that for apps that are at all a threat to the core businesses of either Apple or Google, there’s an added risk that that app may never be approved. Perhaps, one of the more apparent industries at risk includes blockchain and crypto.
Apple and Google have strong footholds in the world of payments. Therefore, it’s improbable to think that web3 developers won’t be met with complications when it comes to pushing products in the general marketplace. Most recently, we saw the brief removal of the leading crypto wallet, MetaMask, earlier this month, which sent the broader web3 community into uproar. Crypto influencer and TikTok star Mason Versluis swiftly commented on X, stating that Apple “DO NOT belong in Web3” and that the measure was likely taken because “[Apple] can’t take 30% of every transaction.”
As with all major enterprises, pursuing growth and protection of market share will always reign supreme over innovation.
The path less traveled
In 1983, during a company trip to New York, Jobs was photographed flipping off the IBM logo outside the building. At the time, Jobs longed for a world where anything is possible and innovation is constant. A world that shunned stagnation and rewarded those who think differently. Fast forward 40 years later, and it seems that even his camp needs reminding of its own core principles.
It might take some time for developers to feel comfortable taking the path less traveled and building outside the constraints laid out for all of us by the powers that be. We’re probably a few dozen good use cases away from any material revolution, but given a little inspection, it’s quite easy to see the writing on the wall.