Apple Must Look Beyond Its Platforms

Apple's myopic focus on its own software platforms will ultimately limit its ability to compete. It's time for the company to lower the walls surrounding iOS and OS X.
5 Apple iPad 5 Wishes
5 Apple iPad 5 Wishes
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Not only does Apple occasionally reject apps submitted to its iOS and OS X App Stores, but it also apparently provides marketing guidance for app developers.

The advice Apple gives remains consistent with the views expressed in 2010 by then CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs, but it may not serve the company as well as it once did: Apple's disdain for cross-platform software is hindering its ability to compete.

Last week, Donald Leka, chairman and CEO of New York-based TransMedia, shared a copy of an email from Tyler Stone, a manager in Apple's developer relations group, with several journalists. Apple did not respond to a request to confirm the authenticity of the note and to clarify Stone's remarks. The message advised Leka to revise a press release he had provided to Apple in advance of publication. In the end, he took Apple's advice and issued a different statement.

The press release announced the release of TransMedia's Glide for iOS, an app that allows users to access files stored in a variety of cloud services, like Dropbox, Google Drive and Windows Skydrive, through a single interface. The mobile Glide app was released previously for Android and Windows 8.

[ Android developers can now easily set up a backend server using Google App engine. Read Google Releases Mobile Backend Starter Code. ]

Stone took issue with a statement from Leka: "Consumers really don't care that much what platform they are on, where their files are stored, or what the file types and file formats are. They simply want to be able to easily access and share a family photo, a letter to a friend, a favorite song or show."

Stone's response suggests that Leka's statement repudiated Apple's core values. "[T]he tone of your release and your product positioning is at odds with not just our primary marketing messaging, but the entire reason Apple exists," he said in his email to Leka. "… Our drive, our passion [and] our singular focus on creating the best products we can make [are] rooted in the fundamental belief that customers really do care about the products in which they invest their time, money and energy. We strive to make the best products we can because we believe the right product will change a customer's life. And customers do indeed care about things that change their lives."

Both Leka and Stone appear to have it half-right: A 2012 study from researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Abo Akademi University in Finland addressed this question directly. The research paper, "Do Consumers Care About Mobile Service Platforms? A Conjoint Analysis On Consumer Preference For Mobile Platforms," stated that the cost of apps "is the most relevant criterion for the respondents to decide which platform to choose."

That's not to say platform distinctions are irrelevant: "[W]hen [consumers] were asked about their willingness to pay more for mobile applications and to pay more for monthly subscription, they indicated that operating systems play an important role in their decision," the study said.

According to the report, consumers do care about whether a device runs Android or iOS when cost is an issue, but they don't care about other mobile operating systems or about telecom operators. In short, price matters more than iOS or Android, and platform distinctions and preferences come into play for paid apps and services.

Apple, of course, has not made price the primary selling point of its products. It has positioned itself as a provider of premium products and done quite well as a result. But Stone's resistance to Leka's message about the benefits of cross-platform harmony suggests that Apple is overestimating its own importance to consumers and overlooking the opportunity to serve its customers better by lowering the walls that protect its platforms.

In 2010, Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple, published a letter explaining his decision not to allow Adobe's Flash apps on iOS devices. It was at once a fair assessment of the problems with Flash and a self-serving justification for Apple's ostensibly benevolent platform dictatorship.

Particularly noteworthy is Jobs' insistence that "letting a third-party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps ..." and that third-party cross-platform development tools make the situation worse by giving developers access to platform features supported by the tool maker.

While there's some truth in this, there's also some misdirection. One only has to look at the number of popular iOS games created in Unity 3D -- a cross-platform development tool -- to realize that substandard apps are not the inevitable result of cross-platform software. Substandard apps can generally be attributed to substandard development practices. API access is also an issue, one that Apple could remedy if it chose to do so.

Apple has made a fetish of its platforms, and for the past six years that was probably appropriate. OS X and iOS really shined during that time. One particular observation in Stone's email says it all: "We think the customers, bloggers and media who follow app launches are usually quite parochial -- quite focused on specific platforms -- so we counsel developers to craft press releases tailored to each individual platform."

But suppose consumers care less about platforms than Stone asserts. I would argue that platform matters when the differences are truly significant. For example, back in 2007, there was no substitute for an iPhone, and in 2010, the iPad was the only tablet of consequence.

Now that Apple's competitors, not only Google and Samsung but Amazon and Microsoft, are finally fielding competitive products, platforms matter less and cross-platform products matter more, to say nothing of price.

The question that Apple must confront is whether it can afford to ignore other platforms when Google is not doing so. Google is busy making its software and services available everywhere.

Apple could compete on Android. It has the engineering talent. It already offers iTunes and iCloud for Windows, but its commitment to cross-platform software appears to be halfhearted. The company has abandoned Safari for Windows. It needs to recognize that it can't make its walls high enough to keep Google out.

Google's Gmail and Drive apps are number one and four on the iTunes App Store's top free apps list. Google Chrome is number five on the free Utilities list. Google Maps is the number one free Navigation app. Google Search and Google Translate are number two and three in the free Reference category. YouTube is number three on the free Photo & Video list. And Google has many more iOS apps. Apple's platform dominance matters a lot less when so many roads lead to Google applications.

Apple should make iTunes a Web store rather than a native application. It should support Android and Windows 8 on iCloud and Siri. It should focus on providing the best software anywhere, instead of the best software on iOS and OS X devices. In an era when software can be compiled for different target platforms so easily, when operating systems meet on the Web and in the cloud, platforms are on their way to becoming just another distribution channel.

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing