Why third-party iOS app stores are vital for digital culture

Adapted from my Mastodon thread from Dec 14, 2022, which was covered by GameDiscoverCo and PocketGamer.biz.

With the news Apple is planning to support third-party App Stores to comply with EU regulations, I see we’re rehashing the old arguments about whether it’s a good thing. To be clear, I don’t only think it’s a good thing – I think it’s essential to the flourishing of digital culture, and it’s astonishing how so many people have become convinced otherwise. So here’s my responses to those tired arguments:

“I don’t want to install a new store for every app/game!”

Do you really think that’s going to happen? That’s not happened literally anywhere else! It’s hard and expensive to run an app store, even big games publishers are giving up on the most open platform we have – the PC.

“Apple keeps me safe”

Apple checks Mac software for safety through the notarization process. Software can be notarized even if you don’t sell it through the Mac App Store. They can do the same for iOS.

“I don’t want App Stores full of junk and scams!”

Have you visited the App Store lately? Apple only spends a few minutes reviewing app updates and even major apps routinely break its rules (I found this myself while researching subscription paywall flows). New app stores could be worse, yes – but they could be a lot better, too.

“I like the simplicity of Apple’s payments and refunds for apps”

That won’t go away with new app stores, and besides, it’s in their interests to make payments easy. Speaking as a developer, Apple’s rules make it impossible for us to issue refunds directly, even when we’d like to. So we could provide better customer support under a different set of rules!

Here are the real benefits of third-party app stores:

  1. Publishers can make a living. Apple’s 30% fee exceeds the margin that book, music, and film publishers have, which is why they’re the only game in town (since they save 30%!). If you want better e-readers than Apple Books; if you want new avenues for people to publish content digitally, this is the ONLY way it will happen. There is NO alternative other than going web-only, with all the pain that entails.

  2. We can get new kinds of political and adult content. Apple prohibits games about sex and they’ve had problems with political speech too. You might handwave this by saying “oh but at least they prohibit the bad stuff too” and I just disagree. This is the “Itch.io” store argument – we could have games about everything and anything, if we had third-party app stores. Proving the point, Apple recently made a reprehensible and ill-informed argument about how games on Itch.io’s “so-called adult games” that were “so offensive we cannot speak about them here.”

  3. New discovery mechanisms. The App Store is an awful way to discover apps and it’s getting worse since it’s infested with ads. It no longer pays for referrals so sites like Toucharcade can’t make any money reviewing games. New app stores allow for new, more targeted, discovery mechanisms.

  4. Faster, fairer development experience. This is invisible to consumers, but an ever-present overhead on developers, who have to contend with capricious app review processes. It’s better than it was before but ultimately it excludes new developers and people with less experience; it benefits incumbents who know how to navigate and exploit Apple’s labyrinthine rules.

Ultimately, people have been so starved of the benefits of multiple app stores that they have no idea of what they’re missing. It’s honestly tragic, and in economic terms, the opportunity cost is almost incalculable.

We have lost 15 years of digital cultural development because everything has to abide by a single gatekeeper that controls the dominant mobile platform in many countries.

I will not be sad to see it go.

Photo by James Yarema on Unsplash

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