There is a battle brewing behind the scenes which could alter the app store landscape as we know it. Apple only allows approved apps from the App Store to be installed on iPhones and iPads. Some say that prohibition is anti-competitive and monopolistic.
Lower courts have sided with Apple and quenched lawsuit attempts, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says iPhone app buyers can sue Apple. Why? Apple has monopolized the market for iPhone apps because they cannot be purchased outside the App Store without jailbreaking the iPhone, and that leads to higher prices thanks to an anti-competitive practice within Apple’s monopoly on app distribution.
The problem is both simple and simple to solve but is the solution good for lawyers? Or, good for App Store customers? Apple controls the distribution system entirely. If you want an app you have to use Apple’s App Store. Yes, there are third party hacks which are available to install apps not from the App Store, but they represent a tiny minority of customers willing to jump through a few hoops to get apps that Apple does not approve.
Apple says the App Store is not anti-competitive because app developers compete against other developers and their apps, and all Apple does is provide a distribution system. Of course, apps must be approved before they are allowed to be distributed. One can argue that customers buy the apps from developers, but Apple is still the gatekeeper.
The App Store is an open market but is confined to specific rules that benefit customers– curating apps to follow specific guidelines– and set up a competitive atmosphere for app developers, and that helps to keep prices competitive.
The Open Market
Should Apple lose a lawsuit it likely would appeal so don’t expect any massive changes within the next few years. Apple has plenty of lawyers and deep pockets. But things happen. What if the courts decide Apple must let customers shop for apps the way Mac users shop?
On the Mac, users are able to shop for applications at both the curated Mac App Store and on the open market. macOS Sierra, as with previous versions of OS X, allows for third party apps to be installed on the Mac, regardless of the developer’s approval status (with a couple of hoops).
I don’t think an open iOS which can install apps from the App Store for iPhone and iPad, and can install from third party app downloads is such a bad idea– it works on the Mac– but there are differences. The Mac is not a smartphone and is not required to adhere to specific cell phone carrier network provisions which could be compromised by third party iOS apps.
Lawyers who represent those who want to sue Apple– probably other lawyers looking for company with deep pockets to bilk– think a solution would open the market and lower prices. Are App Store prices too high? Apple gives developers the lion’s share of App Store revenue and manages distribution, app conformance and performance testing, as well as internal promotion. How would an open market affect which functions developers would be allowed to put into their applications?
There are many unknowns should Apple be forced by the courts to open iOS to allow for third party apps to be installed, but one thing is clear. Lawyers will gain plenty. Customers will gain little.