Why we can't have nice apps and how Apple could fix it

Yahoo! just bought my favorite camera app for iOS, Kitcam, and removed it from the App Store. It's not the first time a great third party app has been been bought. Google has bought many apps, from the Slide apps to Nik Software apps (including Snapseed) to Sparrow. Facebook has bought Instagram, the Sofa apps, and Push Pop Press. Hell, Apple bought Siri and many others themselves. Not every third-party app that gets bought gets removed from the store, even if it's bought by Apple's biggest software competitor, Google, or an up-and-coming ones, like Facebook. (Yahoo! hasn't announced a mobile OS competitor, and may not be in the organizational shape to do so any time soon, but would be crazy not to have a project ongoing.)

This is why we can't have nice apps.

That's the grossest over-simplification of the tensions and business realties and market conditions facing app developers, but for an end user, it's a rightfully indignant one.

At the same time Microsoft is getting what passes for their shit together, finally releasing Halo for Windows Phone. While these two things might not seem to have much in common, they both highlight a problem that could be solved in the same way.

With more diverse and audacious first-party Apple apps.

Apple already makes first-party apps, of course. Not only do they make the core iOS apps, but they make all their ecosystem apps like iBooks, iTunes U, Remote, Find my [Device/Friends], and their iWork/iLife apps. They don't make or produce any first-party video games yet, or a higher-end camera app (for example), and especially not anything that could be termed experimental, but all of those things could help none-the-less push forward the state of the art of mobile.

No doubt Apple is stretched well beyond their limits already, and sprinting to get iOS 7 and associated apps ready for this fall will take more than every ounce of will and effort they can collectively muster. So, the idea of putting even more app development on their plate might sound ludicrous, or dumb enough my keyboard should be confiscated.

But people far smarter than I'll ever be have already offered suggestions for this, from farming out implementation to former engineers and designers now independent, to using these projects as mini "staycations" for current engineers and designers who need a 20%-style break from the everyday.

Gaming could benefit the most, giving Apple apps they could use to not only compete with the Halo, Ingress, Mario, Grand Turismo, and other first party titles, but apps they could use to dogfood Game Center and all their gaming, physics, audio, and other API, existing and upcoming, private and public. (A great first-party Core Data sync app would be a great, confidence building move as well.) Boutique apps that do something novel and cool with music or photography, F1 racing or coffee, or whatever else, could delight not only users, but Apple alike.

It could solve a lot of problems in a lot of interesting ways. If the competition is seen as unfair to third-party developers -- something that already occurs with iWork and iLife -- they could be listed differently, or in alternate rankings, so they don't suck attention away from the indies.

And it would insulate iOS, and its user base, against not only all the best indie iOS apps getting bought and potentially yanked so often, but the talent drain that comes with it.

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Why we can't have nice apps and how Apple could fix it


While the fundamental reason is likely as you say -- that Apple is stretched -- they may also simply wish to void antitrust attention. Were Apple to jump into first party development with vigor, they may find themselves needing to become *far* more transparent on App Store policies, or even set up a strict firewall between the OS and App sides of the company, to avoid arousing the legal watchdogs. They payoff of first-party apps may not be worth that sort of headache.

As to the obvious counter "Apple does not have a monopoly in smartphones" -- true, but:

-- Not all types of antitrust actions require monopoly power. Even discounting use of private APIs and access to insider tech resources first party App developers would have, if Apple is competing against 3rd party apps and does not provably require its own products to go through the same App Store process as its competition, the DoJ could certainly bring a credible antitrust case under the Essential Facilities doctrine. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essential_facilities_doctrine ]

-- Monopoly depends on how you define the market. If the iOS software market is big enough on its own, investigators may find that enough to proceed.

I do not think Apple is likely to attract the DoJ even if they do what Rene says, but they might find the risk *just* credible enough that they would not want to upset their current wildly profitable setup.

Kitcam is gone?! WTF!

I've really hated this kind of crap since Google killed Sparrow right after I decided it deserved my $9.99. I channel my hopes towards Air Mail now, but the long-abandoned Sparrow still performs a bit better at this moment.

Twice in a week. First Waze and now Kitcam. Waze won't get pulled anytime soon, but it will never be the same now that Google has its hands on it.

One potential positive since Yahoo picked up Kitcam is that it may reappear as a bundle into a souped up Flickr app. I can't imagine why else they would want a top quality iOS camera app right now. The two would seemingly make a good pair.

That some third party apps are so good that other companies want to buy them is not a business problem for Apple, it's marketing opportunity, however inconvenient it may be for that app's users.

I would rather Apple focus on hardware and core apps, and ditch all the extraneous ones. Apple trying to do everything for everybody by building games and everything else is a recipe for an unfocused company. How's that worked out for Microsoft? While they've put increasing energy into jumping into every latest trend, they haven't built an OS that anyone really wants since XP. I think the same will happen with Google sooner or later. I don't want it to happen to Apple.

Define your core business then do that (and only that) better than anyone else.