App Store, Developers and their Customers

The narrative around Apple vs Hey in the past week has mostly focused on the draconian, and often arbitrary, App Store rules. And for good measure. Rules formulated in the early days of the App Store are due for a change.

However, most of the discussions have ignored the third side of this relationship — the customer. This is where the suggestions to dismantle the App Store or allowing alternative “App Stores” become a problem. While this may be good for some developers (some is the critical word here), it most certainly won’t be the preferred outcome for customers. 

The fundamental problem with this suggestion is that it ignores the second and third-order effects on customers. Let’s break this down — from the customer’s perspective. 

There are more reasons beyond what I mention here on why breaking up the App Store as the centralised distribution point is a bad idea.


Where do I get apps from?

There is no ambiguity about this. There’s one App Store. That’s where I get my apps from. And it’s already there when I buy a new phone. Nothing else to download. No dance with cables connected to laptops.

Even if we assume regulations force Apple’s hand to bundle alternate Stores with the iPhone, do customers know enough to trust them? And, worst case, if there’s no store app bundled – what then? The App Store (and the Play Store) solves this problem. Customers have built their habits with this reality for 10+ years. What happens if this is suddenly broken?

Is the app safe to download?

The stores abstract away this decision by imposing constraints and via the review process. What happens if it becomes the Wild West – like the Windows desktop app universe? How do customers know if an app can be trusted? This doesn’t affect the big-name developers or large corporations. But it does affect apps from small independent developers.

With alternate stores out there, can customers trust these stores versus something they have used for 10+ years?

Is the app any good?

Reviews, ratings and editorial recommendations play a role in customer decision making. A fragmented store ecosystem makes this far more difficult for customers to know if an app is really what it says it is.

How do I pay for the app?

This is one of the contentious issues of the current debate. But, let’s accept it, the integrated payment system makes life way easier for both customers and developers. I have had this experience first hand with payment processing via traditional gateways versus Apple Pay. While CC conversion rates on traditional gateways hover around 80%, Apple Pay is consistently around 98-100%. What’s better?

Let’s think through what happens if this wasn’t an option.

  1. Customers have to go through the dance of providing card details and 2FA.
  2. Lower payment success means increased customer dissatisfaction.
  3. And lower conversions for the developer along with increased support requests.

How do I track my subscriptions?

We are living in an era of subscriptions. Everything is a subscription. And it is very easy to lose track of what I am subscribed to and from where. On the App Store, this is consolidated. Allows me to track and change any time without going through credit card statements or searching for mails.

This is an already fragmented system today, and dissing the App Store will make things more difficult for customers.

Have I already purchased this app?

A fragmented distribution eco-system can also drive repurchases of the same app from different sources. Then this becomes a customer support issue. Not something independent developers or small businesses want to add this to their task list.


So, why are these issues? The PC (Windows and Mac) ecosystem has existed for decades. And people have adapted to life with the fragmented distribution models.

What’s fundamentally different is who uses phones. Global PC shipments in Q4’19 were at 70.6 m units [1]. Global smartphone shipments were 368.8m units [2]. And this gap has been widening in the last decade.

A generation of users who have never used a PC. Their knowledge of the platform is far limited than those debating the virtues of breaking the App Store apart. This is not the solution.

But that doesn’t mean that the rules should remain as is. What happened in the context of Hey is not ideal. But before we jump to recommending solutions, let’s think through the second and third-order effects on customers.

Before I could hit publish, spotted this. Change is inevitable.


[1] Gartner Says Worldwide PC Shipments Grew 2.3% in 4Q19 and 0.6% for the Year
[2] Smartphone shipments by vendor worldwide from 4th quarter 2009 to 1st quarter 2020


Update

Steven Sinofsky goes deeper on the topic drawing evidence from the early days of Windows.

It is really important to understand two things about the story I am trying to tell. First, everyone in the the entire “system” believes they themselves are acting in good faith and working to build great products. No one is going to “exploit” the platform or do bad things or make the platform look bad. Likewise the platform has no interest in shutting out developers or making things difficult for them. Everything everyone is doing is to make the world a better place.

Second, and this is a but, everyone is also only acting locally. No one is really globally optimizing the customer experience. There’s no global usability test for the system. There is not an optimal solution that everyone us going for by using Goal Seek in Excel. In the end, each company/organization or even team within a big company is acting in their best interest. Yes, this is one giant collection of org charts shipping code.

This means that even though everyone is well intentioned, there is room for the platform to say “well maybe we need to be careful” or “maybe we should just require this”. From my past an example is pushing people for signed device drivers. Seems silly, but no one company saw this as something useful or interesting to do. The platform (OPK) requiring it was a tax on the system. It raised costs and reduced agility. It was even viewed as something to keep people focused on Windows. And all we wanted to do was reduce malware.

The App Store Debate: A Story of Ecosystems

Building Mobile Apps

Owning Cleartrip’s mobile apps between 2014–16 was one of the most satisfying assignments I worked on. It was the beginning of the mobile growth years in India. We had the opportunity to shape the direction of the product. The team’s effort improved most metrics. There was external recognition as well. The app was selected Editor’s Choice on both App Store and Play Store in this period and won a few product-design awards as well.

The success of the mobile platform also gave me the opportunity to be part of public discourse on mobile growth in India. Here are some mobile app development principles I had put together for a presentation during that time. Much of it is still valid.


  • It is still difficult to tap, type, correct and read on a mobile screen. Reduce and remove friction for these actions.
  • Reduce the number of taps required to reach a goal. Provide recommended starting points, combine actions to reduce clicks, ask for as few details as possible.
  • Reduce duplication, make it easy to find again. Remember recent and past actions, repeating inputs and “what I’ve already seen”.
  • Anticipate user needs and intervene. Assisted filters, fuzzy search and real-time input validation reduce stress.
  • Make it easy to assimilate information. Solve for aggregate (result-set grouping) as well as specific information (result metadata). Progressively disclose details.
  • Gracefully handle errors — ”What did I do wrong? What are the consequences? What should I do now?” Switching context to Google for solutions is stressful.
  • Solve for the journey; not the stop. Engagement brings users back. When users come back, trust increases. Increase in trust leads to (repeated) conversion(s).
  • What does a customer lose by leaving? What does a customer gain by staying? These are the best use-cases.
  • The best use-cases decay slower than others increasing retention. Encourage and guide users to these use cases.
  • Solve for mobility. Use device capabilities, solve mobile specific use cases (eg. near me, right now, share). But respect the physical limitations of the device — display, storage, bandwidth, battery. [1]
  • Respect the platform. Use first-party patterns where available. Don’t port patterns across platforms.

[1] This is one aspect where things have changed significantly in the last 2 years. Most of these aren’t practical limitations any more. But that is no reason to be complacent. Behaviour (eg. concern about app size) is hard to change.