Navigating the post-platform mobile future

This is the third part in my three-part series on the future of mobile platforms. Part 1 is The current war between Apple and Facebook and Part 2 is The future of mobile content platforms. Important background can be found in The coming war between Apple and Facebook.

In Part Two of this series, I explored how the changing landscape of content distribution on mobile is re-defining the concept of a “platform”: rather than a hardware-specific gatekeeper, the platform of the future is a web of cross-device products with which consumers interact across a range of frequencies. In this new conceptualization, the relationship between consumer and platform is anchored to real-time interaction on an always-on-us device, such as a smartphone.

For reasons explained in the above-linked article, the battle over control of the mobile app stores was mostly a distraction from the more fundamental parallax scroll of evolution in consumer tech:

  1. That mobile gatekeepers only control one portion of the surface area of content distribution in the modern consumer technology landscape;
  2. That the mobile gatekeepers are winning the battle of on-smartphone content distribution by weakening the effectiveness of digital advertising and asserting strict control over the form that in-app content can take, but they are losing the broader war for primacy with the consumer. At some point in a cross-device, always-available, cloud-oriented paradigm, the direction of dependency between gatekeeper and content provider flips;
  3. That gaming tends to lead consumer technology innovations, and the gatekeepers can only keep streamed games out of their sandboxed ecosystems for so long before that restriction either causes commercial damage or simply becomes irrelevant (because consumers can interact with streamed games outside of an app);
  4. That the idea that an “app” is a contained, executable, on-device file is being challenged by the reality of streaming content, or potentially, becoming irrelevant.

This last point is important, and it is one I pay credence to in Three arguments against Apple anti-trust accusations:

If the accusation was rephrased as, “Apple is a monopoly because the App Store is the only means by which a developer can distribute content to iOS users,” then it’d be dismissed as patently false: iOS users can freely consume content via the web or bluetooth or wifi in a way that is not at all gated by the App Store. An “app” within the context of iOS is just content that is saved in the .ipa file format for upload to the App Store. … If a developer builds a software product, publishes it both to the mobile web and the App Store by exporting separate files, is the App Store really the only means by which that developer can reach consumers? Applying the “app” label here only to products that are published via the App Store makes the initial statement tautologically true but not meaningful.

This argument is salient here because, for the same reason that it works in Apple’s favor against anti-trust charges, it presents viable opportunities for developers to sidestep the App Store when delivering content to iOS devices (and Android devices). If Apple is to use this defense against accusations that it exerts monopoly power because the App Store only facilitates one form of content where many forms are compatible, then it tacitly accepts the legitimacy of non-App Store distribution portals on iOS.

But how can a developer lean into this dynamic in a way that benefits its business? I think any developer giving serious thought to its product and distribution strategy over the next three to five years should undertake a few introspective exercises:

  1. Recognizing that the gatekeepers (Apple and Google) aren’t the only points of contact in building distribution relationships;
  2. Accepting that becoming a “platform” on mobile has always been something of an elusive ambition — app developers’ white whale. Becoming a bona fide platform means owning and managing the relationship with users, and that was never fully possible on mobile given the gatekeepers’ interventions and restrictions.

Reconciling this last point with the realities of content consumption — the total control that any legitimate platform would naturally and understandably seek to exert on its content partners — and a content creator should come to the conclusion that, absent direct ownership of relationships with consumers, they are at the very least better served by not only competing for attention on one device.

Again, this underscores the distribution dependency scope: the less a developer relies on any specific gatekeeper — because their product is available across devices and distribution portals — the more the gatekeeper needs that specific developer, since consumers are accustomed to accessing that developer’s content from many or all of their devices.

This de facto leverage is critical to navigating the content distribution waters of the next few years, as Apple and Google exert, ever more forcefully, their authority over their ecosystems as gatekeepers.

Photo by Mauro Sbicego on Unsplash