Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Merging the Apps, Merging the App Stores

Apple’s recent World Wide Developer Conference revealed many exciting new software technologies, about which I will surely write more at some point. One interesting thing is that there is much better integration and communication between iOS and OSX on the horizon.

This got me thinking: why are there still two Apple App Stores?

(Why are they so awful is another question, and out of scope for now.)

Right now you can make an app for iPhone; or for iPad; or for both iPhone and iPad; or for the Mac. You would usually use the same tools to make any of these.

Why not merge the stores, and also merge the apps?

Merging the stores is a fairly obvious idea. It would mean using the "normal" (Mac) App Store to buy and manage mobile apps on your Mac. That might be a nice opportunity to get mobile devices out of iTunes once and for all, but again: out of scope.

Merging the apps is perhaps less obvious, but more and more iOS apps are spawning Mac versions. Wouldn’t it be cool if the developer could sell all three versions as one package? From the developer’s point of view it would probably involve uploading separate apps and simply merging them administratively. OSX and iOS are not likely to be the same thing any time soon, so in terms of binaries we are still talking about two apps.

But in terms of user perception we are talking about one app with three incarnations. I think people would get used to this very fast, and come to think of a good app as being available on all their devices automatically.

Not every developer would take advantage of this at first. Consider the Omni Group, one of the best independent software companies in the Apple ecosystem. They make some great software and they are not shy about charging real money for their products. I have one of their apps, OmniFocus for iPhone, iPad and Mac, and I paid three times for the privelege. Now they have released a new version as a paid upgrade (still pending for iPad) and I will probably, sooner or later, pay them three times again, because I believe I get sufficiently premium value from these premium products to justify their premium prices.

But for smaller developers looking to maximize their users’ engagement, it could be a big win. Or for Silicon Valley startups trying to metabolize their large injections of venture capital and desperate for eyeballs lest their Social Meatball World be overtaken by Meatball Cloudface LLC. You need to get on as many devices as possible, and get people to use your software as much as possible, before the Samwer brothers come out with Wolkenfleischball Sozial Total and lock you out of the German market.

As a user and a customer, I would like that. I want all my apps in one place, at least administratively. I want one "Purchased" tab. I want things that interoperate between my devices. I want to open iTunes as infrequently as possible.

Apple wants 30% of everything. Should be an easy match, no?

As a developer, however dilettantish my engagement with XCode may be, I find it exciting to think about making apps that are integrated out of the "box," as it were. Imagine, for example, an online banking app. Some things you really want to have available when you’re out and about, and some things are much easier to do on a "real" computer. Or think about all the things you can do (soon) with Apple’s new Health app. This begs for a desktop/laptop companion app.

I think Apple will merge the stores at some point. I have no idea when, and it would be silly to speculate considering I’ve seen iTunes as a dead man walking for years now. But sooner or later I think we will have one app store, at least for Macs.

Will they allow the apps to be merged as well? I hope so. I see a lot of benefit to it. But I could also imagine this waiting until some day, probably at least five years from now, when the operating systems themselves merge and you could have a three-platform app (or four, with the TV) that really is a single app.

Merged or not, I think the future of a lot of app categories is tight interaction between the phone, tablet and desktop/laptop versions. Doing this across platforms is much more challenging, and I have a hard time imagining the integration ever being very good. That might give Microsoft a much-needed boost to its mobile business, because at the moment only Apple and Microsoft are capable of tight integration throughout their respective ecosystems.

If I’m going to be so rash as to predict something, then it's this: by this time next year there will be a bunch of indie apps offering a unified user experience on iPhone, iPad and Mac, and at least a couple will be popular enough that the conversation in the developer community will be largely about that integration.