Are iPhone apps the new CD-ROMs?


Remember CD-ROMs? Remember how cool they were and how for a brief moment in the early 90s it seemed every possible thing was being CD-ROMified – from children’s books to topo maps to baseball cards? CD-ROMs were briefly so cool that people would pay $200 a pop for the latest and greatest titles. Then they became so ubiquitous that you’d get them as giveaways and even in your junk mail. Then after just a few years, the Web came along, and most CD-ROMs suddenly made no sense at all.

So what does this have to do with iPhone apps? Well…

  1. There are a whole bunch of iPhone apps that are really just repackaged websites and don’t make a lot of sense as apps.
  2. There are a whole bunch of apps that everyone would dismiss as pointless and annoying if they weren’t wrapped in an iPhone.
  3. iPhone apps have a stupidly limited distribution model.

I want to focus on #3. The idea that our mobile phones are small personal computers is still somewhat novel. Other than the simplest of games, we’ve never been able to install software on our phones before, and so the App Store is a little like going from Communist Prague to the Las Vegas strip – except we still have a dictator (albeit a benevolent one) called Apple.

If Apple or any other company tried to exercise complete control over what people could install on their computers they way they do with the iPhone, the reddit kids would go absolutely bananas. Having just arrived from behind the iron curtain, however, we think the App Store is like the best candy store ever.

But people don’t really want one company to dictate what they can install on their phones, even if it’s Apple.┬áThere’s no reason Apple should be able to force me to keep the Yahoo! “Stocks” app on my phone, or prevent me from installing a pair of virtual iBoobs (somewhat NSFW). And developers – not to mention companies – would love it if they didn’t have to deal with the whole iTunes Connect process in order to make their apps available to you.

Here’s a hypothetical example: If there’s a problem with the New York Times website, or they want to add a new feature, they have complete freedom to make any changes they want.┬áNot so with the New York Times iPhone App. First they have to find a developer who knows the iPhone platform – a much smaller labor pool than that of web developers. Then, once the work is done, they have to submit it to Apple and wait. Usually about two weeks. And there’s no guarantee that Apple will accept it into the iTunes store. If Apple doesn’t like the way the New York Times has decided to, say, monetize the app by displaying ads, then the New York Times has no choice but to change it, re-submit and wait again. There’s no way the New York Times can make their app available to you outside the iTunes store (jailbroken phones excepted).

Now you might say the New York Times makes no sense as an iPhone App, but why should Apple get to make this decision for the market?

Apple has a huge advantage right now, not just because of their head start. Their SDK is light years beyond anything I’ve seen from Nokia/Symbian, Palm, RIM or J2ME. Apple provides better tools and guidance than anyone else for creating amazing, beautiful, elegant apps. Philosophically, Apple looks at the phone differently than those traditional players do, and this is Apple’s real advantage. They see the phone as a software client first and an extension of the phone company second (and the latter as a kind of necessary evil at that). Android is the only other platform that looks at the phone this way, but at some point in the not too distant future, this is just what phones will be.

When you think of the iPhone as just another computing platform, then it doesn’t make sense for Apple to hold a monopoly on distributing software for it. The iTunes store might always be the best and easiest place to get apps for your iPhone, and Apple surely loves their 30% cut, but someday nothing will prevent people from selling you their apps by way of their websites or Amazon or even in the form of… gasp… CD-ROMs from old-school retailers. Count on it happening sooner rather than later.

Apple always has impecable timing, and they will probably open things up right around the time that Nokia’s new app store comes online.

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