Break up the app stores

It has now been more than two decades since the famous antitrust case against Microsoft. At the time, Internet Explorer was dominating the browser market, and the courts declared that Microsoft was practising an unlawful monopoly. The courts forced Microsoft to provide an option for Windows users where they could choose which web browser to install and set as default.

While this wasn't the only reason, it was a big obstacle for creating the modern web we have now. Today we have web standards that are evolving and improving, and the browsers on the market are usually quick in adopting them. The web today is much better for consumers than it used to be when Microsoft had a de-facto monopoly with Internet Explorer.

Now we face a similar situation with the app stores for Android and iOS. Both Google and Apple are limiting third-party stores in no small degree, and they also limit the business practices for companies that want to publish apps on the these stores. It is way overdue to break up the monopolies of smartphone app stores and allow competing solutions for consumers.


Does anyone care?

Most consumers don't care about this monopoly, so you might wonder if this is a real problem. However, a monopoly doesn't have to be bad for consumers in an obvious way. We don't notice the lack of innovation or negative effects on consumers as we have nothing to compare with. During the reign of Internet Explorer, there were plenty of alternative browsers to install. Still, very few consumers did that since Microsoft provided a solution with Windows (which was the OS "everyone" was using). Once the monopoly was declared illegal and alternatives were presented in a more natural way for consumers, the evolution for the web increased significantly.

No consumer today would never accept using a web browser like Internet Explorer was two decades ago. For app stores, consumers are not aware of any better alternatives, so there are no loud complaints about them. This is why we have antitrust regulations, and both Google and Apple are, in my opinion, in violation with their current practices.

Another reason for breaking up the current monopolies is the limitations that both Google and Apple have. The most famous example is how Apple, somewhat arbitrarily, require app developers to use Apple Pay for signing up to a service through the app. In-app purchases like this mean that Apple takes 30% of payment. Compared to the cost of a regular credit card payment, this is a lot and many times, not a sustainable option for businesses.

Counter arguments

One argument for the current situation is that consumers have a better user experience when the app store is tightly integrated with the OS on their device. I agree that this is the case, but the current situation only exists because Google and Apple choose to implement the software this way. There is no technical limitation for allowing alternative stores to be provided to consumers and still maintain a great user experience. Windows didn't get worse by allowing a third-party web browser.

Another argument is usually about end-user security. By only allowing their stores, Google and Apple can claim that they protect user privacy and keep their data secure. This is also just a technical argument. Again, there are no technical limitations for providing the same level of security while also allowing alternatives apps stores on the device. Already today, both iOS and Android can isolate both individual apps or group of apps. The most common example of this is when you have a work account and a private account on an Android device. The apps installed from your work account can't interact with the apps on your private account.

Some Android developers might also argue that Google actually allows third-party stores today. The most well-known example is the Epic installer used for installing Fortnite on an Android device. While it is possible to sideload an application on an Android device, I argue that it is far from sufficient. Google might be better than Apple here, but it still isn't good enough.

You can probably imagine more arguments supporting the current situation. Still, most of those will either be a technicality that easily can be solved or some misconception that the software that Google and Apple make are always better than any alternative.

Developer challenges

Some Android developers have already experienced the situation of multiple app stores. Many apps are today available not only on Google Play Store, but also on the stores from Huawei, Amazon, and Samsung. While this does require more work for the developers, it is not a good argument for having a single app store on smartphones. There are way more consumers than app developers.

Also, while app developers can distribute their app on multiple stores, they don't have to, and the reasons for doing it would disappear if a device could have many stores at the same time. The store alternatives would have to compete for the attention of app developers, which would result in better developer tools for publishing apps.

Solutions

The simplest solution to the current situation would be to let apps installed from different stores to be isolated from each other. An app installed from Google Play Store would not be directly visible to apps from other stores. As already mentioned, this is the case already today on Android when you have multiple Google profiles on the device. There are several technical solutions for this, like virtualization or OS-level isolation. I would be surprised if this isn't already solved on an OS level for both iOS and Android.

Some things might be more challenging to solve, like how the launcher on Android would list all the apps from different stores. While it might prove complicated, I'm confident that the engineers at Google and Apple can solve this.

A brighter future

It is impossible to predict a future where our smartphone can support multiple different app stores, but it is certainly possible to speculate on what might happen.

The most likely change is the model for in-app purchases. The existing stores share of 30% for in-app purchases would most certainly be much lower when competitors enter the market. A smaller share would mean that more apps would be able to afford to use in-app purchases, which in turn means a better revenue model for app developers.

Another advantage would be local and specialised stores. Epic is already providing a store that users can sideload on Android devices, where they can give a store experience focused on gaming. We can expect more alternatives like this once the monopolies are gone.

Beyond this, there are certainly more exciting changes that I haven't imagined yet. We can't say for sure what will happen, but from a historical perspective, monopolies are always a bad thing for consumers in the long run.

A change like this might seem futile and pointless. You might feel like it would just generate more work compared to the current situation. But breaking up the existing monopolies of app stores is not a short term fix, it's about safeguarding consumers in the long run.

We do not want to repeat the situation that we had with Internet Explorer, which delayed the evolution of the web by decades. It's time to change the status quo and move to a much more bright future for apps.