App Store is neither console nor retail but jukebox

August 15 2020 by Jeff Johnson

The iOS App Store has been compared alternatively to a retail store and to a game console. Retail stores and game consoles are very different entities, so I'm not sure how, rhetorically speaking, both comparisons are allowed and considered apt. In any case, neither comparison is accurate, presently or historically. We know the origins of the App Store, because it originated only a dozen years ago. The model for the App Store wasn't retail stores. It wasn't game consoles. It wasn't even the smartphones that existed at the time. The model for the iPhone App Store was the iTunes Music Store. Where did the 30% App Store commission come from? No coincidence, 30% just happened to be the commission on songs in the iTunes Music Store!

The iOS App Store was in iTunes, right alongside the iTunes Music Store, until version 12.7. (I'm still running the special version iTunes 12.6.5 that contains the App Store.) The user interface for searching, viewing, and purchasing apps is almost exactly the same as for music. The same Ratings and Reviews (more on that later). The same top charts (more on that later too). If you view your purchase history on the web, you see all your app, music, movie, TV, and subscription purchases in a single, unseparated list. Until very recently, iTunes Music and iOS apps shared the same URL scheme and domain, and the developer interface was still called iTunes Connect. The term "app console" has been coined recently to describe the iOS app business model, but in my opinion it would be more accurately termed an "app jukebox".

As an App Store developer, I've always found the iTunes Music Store model to be an incredibly bad fit for selling software. For example, it's rare for a customer to need technical support for a song. Playing a song Just Works.™ Just press the play button. Moreover, the "quality" of a song is largely a matter of opinion and taste. So the Ratings and Reviews sections in the iTunes Music Store are adequate for their purpose. Customers can vote on whether it's a great song, a good song, an ok song, etc. Same for movies and TV shows. However, software is an entirely different kind of product. Software is generally much more complicated to use, and customer technical support is commonplace. The Ratings and Reviews section is fundamentally wrongheaded for the App Store. What software customers need instead is Support and Refunds. It's extremely frustrating as an App Store developer that this is handled so badly by Apple. Customers often have no idea how to get support, or how to get a refund if the software isn't working right for them. (What is the App Store's policy on refunds, anyway? This is not even clear to developers, much less customers.) We often see support questions in the reviews, even though it's impossible to have a back-and-forth conversation with a customer in the reviews. It's truly the worst system you can possibly imagine. If you listen to a song you don't like, or watch a movie you don't like, then leave a 1-star rating, that's fine. People have different taste in music and movies; one person's gem is another person's stinker. But 1-star ratings should not exist for software. Isn't the App Store supposed to be "curated"? If a customer has a problem with the app, they need to get help via technical support in order to solve their problem, or they need to get a refund if the app doesn't work right. And the app should be removed from the store if it doesn't work in general. Why are there so many apps with bad ratings in the App Store? (The analogous question, why are there so many bad songs in the Music Store, is easy to answer: the public has bad taste LOL.)

It's fair to say that the iTunes Music Store devalued music. However, there was never a "race to the bottom" comparable to what happened in the iOS App Store, because the "top" for music was never that high to begin with. Even before the iTunes Music Store, new music albums were all roughly in the same price range. The variance in prices was relatively small. So when you saw a "Top 40" chart for albums or singles, this was a fairly accurate measure of both popularity and sales revenue. And since the price of songs in the iTunes Music Store was standardly 99 cents from the beginning, there wasn't really room for them to go any lower. But the software pricing model, at least before the App Store existed, was completely different from music. The top priced software could sell for hundreds of dollars, and prices for different software titles varied widely. It was commonplace even for small indie apps to sell for $30, $40, $50 per unit. Unfortunately, the "top chart" model from the iTunes Music Store was also applied to the App Store. The "Top Paid" apps were based on unit sales rather than gross revenue. And the easiest way to get discovered in the App Store was to be in the top charts. The result was developers competing to undercut each other in price to bump their unit sales volume enough to reach the App Store top charts. It was a kind of Prisoner's Dilemma, a no-win situation where the most rational move by each individual developer was to betray their fellow developers, with an overall worse outcome for the developers than if they would have all held the line on prices.

The way that Apple treats App Store developers is very similar to how the iTunes Music Store treats musicians. In general, individual musicians have no personal relationship at all with Apple. Most of the business with Apple is handled by the record labels. Taylor Swift can write an open letter to Tim Cook and get noticed, but lesser known musicians would be completely ignored by Apple. Similarly, most App Store developers have no personal relationship with Apple. The most famous developers may have a developer relations contact assigned to them by Apple, but we plebeians have no such luxury. I certainly don't have a developer relations contact myself. All I do as developer is upload my app to iTunes Connect (recently renamed to App Store Connect), and it gets reviewed by an anonymous Apple employee, who I may never have contact with unless I get rejected for some (usually dumb) reason. This is not the way that game consoles work, and it's not the way that retail stores work either. I don't claim that consoles or retail are great, but the amount of communication between the parties in those business relationships is infinitely greater than between Apple and App Store developers, because there's virtually no communication between Apple and App Store developers. No, dueling press releases don't count as communication.

Apple doesn't run the App Store like a retail store, or like a console. Apple runs the App Store like a music jukebox. Like the iTunes Music Store. And we all, developers and consumers, suffer for this. Apple's platforms are worse off because they modeled the App Store after the Music Store. A software application is not a song, but the App Store does have me singing the blues.

One more thing:

It's worth noting that iTunes does let you import music from outside the iTunes Music Store.

Jeff Johnson (My apps, PayPal.Me)