Two fundamental principles of operating an app store

The commentary around the fight between Apple and the coalition that has been formed by Epic, Spotify, Deezer, et al over Apple’s purported monopolistic control of iOS — which is being managed in parallel to a lawsuit that Epic filed against Apple and which is currently being litigated — often confuses a number of different, competing narratives.

  1. The first is that Apple does not allow third-party app stores to operate on its iOS platform;
  2. The second is that Apple demands that any apps published on the iOS App Store utilize Apple’s own proprietary payments system, and in so doing pays Apple a platform fee;
  3. The third is that Apple publishes its own first-party apps directly to the device that compete with App Store participants (eg. Apple Music vs. Spotify) in a dynamic that some developers claim privileges Apple’s own apps;

A fourth narrative, which isn’t incorporated into the legal complaints but nonetheless persists from ornery developers and analysts on Twitter, is that Apple inconsistently enforces its app store terms, resulting in confusion around app rejection. My personal belief is that Apple is very consistent in applying its rules, but that ambiguity around which apps qualify for “Reader App” status leads developers to perceive a degree of capriciousness in the approval process.

It’s important when considering the merits of the arguments against Apple to not conflate the iPhone (hardware platform) with iOS (software platform) with the App Store (content distribution platform). These are three wholly separate entities, and the specific criticisms outlined above need to be considered within their respective platform contexts.

And with complaints about the App Store, specifically, the discourse that rages on Twitter and in the tech press always seems to ignore that any app store (which is to say: a self-serve, account-based content distribution platform) must operate by two fundamental principles in order to be economically and logistically viable:

  1. An app store must not allow for the presence of any other app stores within it;
  2. An app store must charge a platform fee to developers that is universally consistent and transparent.

The first principle is sacrosanct: an app store loses all economic agency and consumer legitimacy if it allows other app stores to operate within it. An app store can’t be “turtles all the way down” in an infinite recursive distribution loop: an app store must be the only source of content, all of which exists one layer below it. If this rule is violated, the app store loses control of content quality and regulation and ceases to be an app store.

The second principle is equally important. An app store’s platform fee (which could be a fixed fee, or a share of revenue, or nothing at all) must be transparent and consistently applied to all developers. If a developer doesn’t know how much of its revenue is surrendered to the app store, and in exchange for what, then it can’t make clear-eyed business decisions around eg. marketing, development investments, etc. and the app store is no longer a distribution platform but an opaque or unpredictable publishing agent.

It’s important in acknowledging these principles that none of the companies demanding that they be able to launch app stores on iOS have proposed violating them. Epic, for instance, would almost certainly not allow other app stores within its Epic Store if it were published to iOS, and the existing Epic Store takes a 12% share from developers’ revenue streams.

The context of developer complaints is necessarily that their own app stores can’t be placed on iOS, not that their own app stores can’t be distributed within the App Store. Because those developers’ own app stores would operate just as the App Store does: by charging developers a consistent, transparent platform fee and by disallowing app stores to operate on top of them.

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash