Apples & Oranges

By Mark Nuyens
8 min. read📱 Technology

Perhaps the elphant in the room is called Desktop and we should compare it to mobile. What if we had the freedom to choose our own level of security?

The recent antitrust lawsuit against Apple by the US Department of Justice has led to some heated debates about the company's control over its app ecosystem, and specifically the App Store. While many arguments focus on specific nuances of the App Store itself, I believe an easier way to have this conversation is by comparing the whole situation to desktop environments. The question is if there is even room for discussing this topic, given the circumstances.

Desktop operating systems, like Windows, macOS, and Linux, are, similar to mobile platforms, also controlled by a single company and serve as platforms for running user applications. The key difference lies in how software is distributed: for desktop, that’s through open installation. For mobile, however, it’s through one centralized App Store. Although a seemingly minor distinction, it may actually reveal the underlying debate – whether or not we can, or even should, compare the desktop and mobile landscape with one another.

Apple often justifies its control over the App Store using security and privacy concerns. However, the significant revenues generated through app sales may suggest otherwise: monetization. While the company argues it needs to continuously monitor apps to save us from installing the “wrong types of apps”, this seems to be a paradox: if they weren't monitoring each and every app, they also wouldn’t need to collect money for doing so, right? In fact, it's actually strikingly similar to a broader phenomenon I've noticed in our physical world, where services increased their prices to pay the staff that's in charge of collecting the fees.

Meanwhile, Apple's practices continue to raise questions about the company's intentions and its true commitment to user privacy and security. First of all, it turns out the App Store is full of apps that probably shouldn't be on there. for all kinds of reasons. And if user privacy is so important to Apple, why not promote privacy-focused search engines like DuckDuckGo? Or warn users when they're sending unencrypted text messages, or recommend using a VPN when using public Wi-Fi networks? They also don't seem to care much about apps displaying ads for generating revenue, instead of in-app purchases, as the latter would force developers to pay Apple a portion of those earnings.

Oh, and before I forget, may I just remind everyone how the web has allowed users to run any kind of app you can think of and nobody has ever considered that to be a bad thing. Sure, there are some parts of that world that are unsafe or misleading. But most of them are well-intentioned and are genuinely trying to make the web a force for good. Those end up as the ones you end up bookmarking or sharing with friends, so clearly there is a positive incentive there. Needless to say, this comes with some responsibility, but doesn't that hold true for any democratic system? Do we really need a company telling us what we can and can’t do on our own devices?

Now, I want to be clear: there is no inherent problem with the iPhone itself. I think it's an excellent piece of technology and it has numerous benefits for consumers. The design, both from the outside and the inside, is something I could only dream of back when I was still playing around in Photoshop on Windows. The problem arises when Apple, the hardware manufacturer, also becomes a software distributor. This causes a misalignment and incentivizes Apple to prioritize the App Store over simply providing a powerful device capable of running any app that we want, across all of its devices.

Now, let's imagine an alternate reality for a second, one where Apple doesn't profit from app sales. In this world, they launched the App Store similar to how apps are distributed on macOS. In this world, they would probably focus on providing value through other avenues, like offering optional subscriptions for premium services or developing their own apps that compete fairly within the App Store. Without the pressure to keep users engaged with their phone for financial gain, Apple's focus might shift towards delivering other qualities, that may otherwise never see the light of day.

You might ask yourself if there is any solution to how things stand right now. Apple will probably not reverse course, but one potential solution is offering users a choice: to allow or disallow third-party app installations, without the involvement of Apple. Choosing "Yes" would essentially open the door to a world of new possibilities, even though these open app ecosystems will also carry some risks. However, we shouldn't forget how these risks already exist online, and we seem to manage them just fine. Additionally, new solutions could be created to create a more democratized app system with the help of user ratings.

Alternatively, users who choose "No" would maintain the current, protected environment, with Apple acting as their gatekeeper. This option would still generate plenty of revenue for Apple through app review and security checks. Ultimately, the choice would be made by the user, empowering them to choose the level of control they desire. This certainly feels like a more mature way for Apple to treat their customers, that's for sure.

In this scenario, the lines between mobile and desktop would start to blur. Apps could potentially run seamlessly across both platforms, using the same codebase. This would be a major advantage for Apple, allowing them to showcase the seamless integration between their devices. Imagine downloading and installing any app from the web onto your MacBook and have it instantly appear across all of your devices, adapting to its screen size automatically.

While Apple wouldn't profit directly from app sales in this scenario, their overall market share would likely remain intact. They would still provide a unique and versatile ecosystem, one where apps seamlessly integrate across all their products – which still is a significant differentiator compared to competitors. Users would embrace Apple for the freedom to install anything from anywhere, with their software and data perfectly in sync.

This thought experiment serves as a reminder of what our devices could be if Apple picked a different path. It highlights the potential for a more open, user-centric ecosystem, where freedom and choice is prioritized over limitation and control. After all, shouldn't the thousand dollars spent on a device be enough, without the need for further monetization through app sales? At the very least, consumers should be able to choose.