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10/1/2010
06:21 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Mobile App Store Battle Pits iTunes Vs. Android Upstarts

App stores are sprouting up like weeds, but increasing competition may actually help developers.

But the growing number of stores means that store owners and platform owners have to give more thought to whether they're selling the most compelling apps. In many cases, that may mean treating developers better. As more and more app stores compete, differentiation will become a necessity, particularly among Android stores.

Even Apple will have to be careful not to alienate developers. Though it may operate the only authorized iOS app store, it can't afford to be so out of step with the rest of the industry that it drives top-tier developers away. Its recent relaxation of its iOS developer rules to allow third-party development tools and analytics suggests that the company understand this, even if it may have been pushed in the direction of openness by regulators.

In the months ahead, the store wars are likely to encourage the creation of better marketing tools for developers. Solving the app discoverability issue will mean not only happier developers but, presumably, improved sales. Google pretty much solved Web search, but app search remains an open challenge.

Store and platform operators should think not only about advertising and analytics, but about payment mechanisms and deal structures. The app store business can probably accommodate other arrangements besides taking a 30% cut of an app's sale price. If porting applications between platforms becomes sufficiently simple, perhaps we'll even see developers band together to negotiate better terms. It works for Hollywood after all.

Store and platform operators also ought to rethink peripheral connectivity for mobile devices. Apple, for example, maintains a licensing program called MFi for those who wish to make iOS peripherals. This is an unnecessary and unfriendly barrier to the Internet of Things that supposedly is on its way.

Consider what mobile payment startup Square did: It created a credit card reader for iPhone, iPad and Android devices, without seeking permission from Apple through the MFi program. It did so by encoding data from its credit card reading peripheral as audio, so it can use the uncontrolled audio jack to get information on and off of phones.

A Square spokesperson said that while Apple was aware of the company's activities and was supportive -- it approved its app and featured it twice -- Square chose to develop its hardware outside of Apple's licensing program in order to support multiple platforms. "We developed our Square device to be device agnostic," a spokesperson said in an e-mail. "As a result, we use the audio port so that we can enable users of all modern phones to accept payments." Note the absence of any of "Made for iPhone" logos that MFi licensees are allowed to display on the Square Web site.

Perhaps there was nothing Apple could have done, but more developer-friendly stance on Apple's part might have encouraged Square to become a partner, with possible payment implications, rather than a company that found a loophole.

As more and more companies adopt the app store model, competition will force stores to serve customers and developers better. App discoverability is a problem that can be solved through better marketing mechanisms. Store and platform operators just have to recognize that they're in the marketing tools business now.

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