More content and fewer stores, please

We’ve been hearing a lot about opening up mobile platforms to other app stores. Tim Sweeney is taking the fight to get iOS opened up so, presumably Epic can have their store on iOS.

What is the benefit to the consumer to having to now manage two store accounts, remember which software comes from which store, etc? I don’t think there is any and in fact, a growing complaint about streaming is that you can’t simply have Netflix or Prime and access what you want there. You need Netflix, Prime, Disney+ and any number of other stores. You end up spending more to access the content you want, you have to manage multiple accounts, raise the risk of personal data theft by placing your details into more databases.

Then you have to remember what is where, some apps don’t want to help consumers so they don’t integrate, as an example, into the Apple TV search so you can’t search everything from one place but rather get stuck fully into their ecosystem despite the fact you’ve already paid and just want to easily watch the content.

You’re told this will increase competition but it won’t. Take the Prime app, it’s generally viewed by many people as having an awful UI. It just looks basic. Paid and subscription content is mixed together. Search results (at least last time I used it) pads out results by not just giving you Seinfeld but rather Seinfeld Season 1, Season 2, etc. The thing is if you want to watch something like Jean Claude Van Johnson [1] then you only have one choice. The same applies to most Netflix shows too. Though if you’re willing to buy rather than stream admittedly in some cases you can buy shows from iTunes which is presumably a side-effect of having to negotiate with studios to get shows made and Netflix would prefer not to do that.

In an ideal world content would be separated from the apps. You could say when Netflix produces a show they get an exclusivity window but after that period it’s available for any other app to consider buying as a streaming option.

With regards to software, I’d personally prefer simply having the Apple App Store and at most the ability to buy software directly from the developer. While this too has it’s own long-term management problems you’re at least giving the developer more money, you’re not forced to potentially use an awful Facebook App Store that’s simply creating a monopoly across platforms. There is lies the other problem with other app stores. If Apple’s “monopoly” is bad (there can be a case made for that) why would it be any better for Facebook to have the monopoly? That is what will happen because they’ll end up with something many people can’t do without (WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram) so you must have that store and then you’re locked in.

I don’t know the best way to stop such a thing from happening but my proposal would be, like other digital content, the content is separated from the store and any store can have any apps if you’re going down the multiple store route. With any sort of content, if there were a defined, open submission format, then the developer effort to push it out to multiple stores should be minimal and then you also allow consumers to transfer content from one store to another too. You can dabble in the Epic Store and if they end up making the app awful then you bail out and go to another store with all your items.

That would rely on a lot of regulation and might be problematic but I don’t think it’s a bad start for a 5 minute think about it just right now. Putting more minds on the problem with a view of the consumer rather than the profit driven store owner will surely result in a more refined solution.

Either way, I think we simply need to focus on the consumer and free access to their content. I’ve always believed this the best way to offer competition.

This why my bookmark app Buchen has the ability to import and export the data as JSON. No matter how good I might make the app it simply won’t appeal to everyone and someone can always come along and do it better. Why should a user be locked into my app? They can manually enter their bookmarks in a new app but that will always be a pain and if you want to try 3 or 4 apps, then then it gets even more painful. The friction means most people will stay put or just give up. I suspect this is what many companies want but it’s not consumer friendly.

Arguably this is what the early internet was based on. There were standards such as newsgroups, IRC and email. You were not locked into an ecosystem so if someone developed an IRC app, it has to be good. If you made a bad app, people could jump over to another app. The IRC network still exists and the user can still use the same servers. Compare this to being in the Slack ecosystem and wanting to move on. There’s a lot of friction. You need to convince people to switch and your chat history is gone.

Even when you stay within an ecosystem currently it’s nearly impossible to migrate from Android to iOS and keep all your WhatsApp data.

The other downside to ecosystems is it means we lose all sorts of data, possibly important government data once the app they use is gone. The EU and other countries have made efforts to get onto the open document format which at the very least lead to Microsoft opening up. These governments still do communication via Team, Slack, Skype and other services so even if we can now get into their documents, a lot of communication happens in the dark and will be lost.

One other side-effect is that some open formats, especially email, see little progress because the best minds are being pushed to replace it with a closed ecosystem.

There is no easy solution but I hope this at least gave you something to consider and hopefully you’ll make the request to developers to open up their app allowing you to get your data both in and out in a useful format and maybe write your local government to request they make similar demands. Hopefully in the end we can put pressure companies provide content freedom and allow consumers to make meaningful changes.

[1]: Jean Claude Van Johnson won’t be the first show people associate with Prime but do try it out. You may be surprised at how fun it is.