A Case For The iPad (and Closed System Development) Part 1

iPad Closed Eco-System Development Cases - Part 1Apple’s announcement of the iPad this week and the incredible growth of Apple’s AppStore, I thought it would be appropriate to share my thoughts on software distribution and marketing in a closed eco-system for software. This post is the first half of a two part series on closed eco-systems, like the Apple AppStore, for application development and distribution and the effect that will have on customer adoption.

I design and develop websites and applications for commercial clients. Typically they are distributed for a small, focused audience and for a limited number of platforms. With the emergence of the iPhone as a leading platform, there is a lot of pressure to begin to move projects into this space. From a personal point of view, I’m excited to look at the iPhone as an inspiring new playground for interface design and a new venue for projects. For most users, it is an execution of what Apple does best: Easy. There is some baggage that comes with “easy”, but that will be outlined in the second installment of this series.

The closed-system that Apple has also offers some very important advantages:

The biggest advantage to consumers who via a closed-system like the Apple AppStore is security. By security, I mean the level of trust a use has when they install something. This has been a huge hurdle for Windows for many years. Without a central authority or trusted source to deem an application as “safe” users, are put in a position of risk with every application they install. The AppStore (and any closed-system requiring a centralized approval process) overcomes this hurdle by giving any application in the store its “seal of approval” as default with it’s inclusion.

Quality is also a big contributor to the popularity of the AppStore. Despite all the proliferation of “flashlight” and “farting” applications, the process of having an application OKed and included as an offering in the AppStore is a level of Quality Assurance. There is an assumed level of stability and finish that should make it an experience consistent to the platform. Any complaints can be managed within the AppStore’s policies and applications can be revoked and, potentially, removed remotely.

Apple App StoreThe AppStore is also a great place to look at all of the offerings for a platform in one place. This is what I also appreciate about the Apple Download Page for OS X: A consolidated collection I can search through easily with consistently presented write-ups, screenshots and ratings. This is also fueling the rise of the “AppStore” as a trend for all platforms as well. It’s excellent branding and a better experience for the user to have all of a platform’s best work in one location. The Apple experience is especially well thought-out. Consumers looking for a solution, the ability to search a term and be presented with several options, all with good feedback, and an easy-to-compare structure in one location is a huge benefit. It relieves one of the heaviest burdens of an open system which is finding the perfect solution be wading through review after review on Google and in forums. It benefits the user, the brand and, in the end, the developer.

For developers getting their start, working within a previously existing infrastructure is a great way to get your first branding and marketing start. You can leverage already existing traffic to the channel and, if you get picked up as a spot-light project, your application can take-off and define you or your company as an major player in the space. There is very little risk as not getting any traffic or a big hit will not deter future users and the quality assurance process will only sharpen your programming skills. Once accepted, being able to add a download badge or similar store “call-to-action” on your application’s homepage or blog gives you a strong air of credibility. [[INSERT APPSTORE BADGE]] The central location of your app within the infrastructure will also provide you with a higher probability of a reviewer or blogger finding your application and finding it. A review outside of the eco-system is likely to give you traffic and strengthen your brand.

The most obvious and, depending on your motivations, the most important part of a gated infrastructure for applications if the financial eco-system. With the exception of free-applications, the nature of a closed system centralizes the transaction between the developer and end-user and simplifies the messy monetary exchanges. This usually comes at a cost. In the case of the Apple AppStore, developers are losing 30% of every sale. If you are in the business of developing applications, you have to weigh the positive affects of an infrastructure versus the costs for marketing themselves and supplying a transaction system or working with a third-party sales portal.

Although I have many personal objections to the undocumented review process and closed nature of the Apple AppStore and many similar application distribution vehicles that aim to mimic it, the power of their offering to users and the convenience they provide is undeniable. I would not be able to comfortably recommend not making use of an application eco-system if one where available for a client’s project. In fact, as someone who works in marketing, I would object if a client where to try to avoid a potential channel for distribution. From the developer’s perspective, the closed eco-system of these stores represents a heavy cost in monetary compensation and also in the confines that SDK, user agreements and licensing put on works. If the purpose of a developer’s application is to support a separate channel and use an application as an accessibility solution, then the model works very well (many of the popular apps in the iPhones store use this ideology). If the intent is to sell a software package as a complete deliverable, then the creators should look at what the distribution opportunity really represents before committing to any agreements.

With the introduction of the iPad and Apple’s clear movement to delivering more and more content through the AppStore, the closed system of Apple looks to cut-off content creators who employ a more open and accessible model. At the time of publishing, it looks as though the iPad will have no support for Adobe Flash, a preferred video delivery and casual gaming format. This will force users who want to use this device for entertainment to get almost all of their materials through the AppStore. This is an ironic turn when compared to the iPhone release. Apple had originally announced that there would be no application development for the iPhone, but rather all content and utility would be delivered via a fully-functioning browser on the device. Times have changed.

UPDATE: The second part of this 2 part series: A Case For The iPad (and Closed System Development) Part 2 is available for reading.