Tuesday, August 18, 2020

App Consoles

John Gruber (tweet):

If you think Epic is right in principle about iOS and Android, then they ought to be making the same argument about Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch. A computer is a computer. “Consoles” are a business model and user experience design choice, and the iPhone and iPad are effectively app consoles, where games are just one type of app.

Steve Troughton-Smith:

The idea that the de facto primary computing platform for most of the world is an ‘app console’ is trash. Apple may be treating it like a console, but it’s so much more important than that and is a critical component in the daily lives of nearly everybody on this planet

The smartphone is everything from communication to banking to camera to credit card to medical device to navigation to game platform. It doesn’t play in the same arena as games consoles; it doesn’t even play in same arena as desktop computers — it’s far more important than the PC

All the more essential that the future of innovation atop smartphone computing is not entirely beholden to the whims of a single team (or VP) at a single company, who has shown time and time again that they can modify and abuse their rules for their own benefit

It is an app console, because that’s how Apple runs iOS. But should it be? Troughton-Smith is right that this is qualitatively different from gaming consoles. Because of the scale and importance of these platforms, I think a better analogy is something like network neutrality.

Comcast and Verizon have built networks of wires and towers that deliver packets to your devices. Does this mean that Comcast should be able to block packets from competing video providers or charge extra for them? Should Verizon be able to block mentions of AT&T or MVNOs? Should they get a cut of everything you buy online because they routed the packets, making sites don’t comply invisible? Yet that’s pretty much where we are with the App Store. Customers who are really lucky have two high-speed Internet providers to choose from, but that limited competition doesn’t give them much protection. What helps is that there’s a long history of network neutrality, and the companies believe the government will step in if there’s abuse. Likewise, with iOS and Android, having a duopoly rather than a monopoly does very little for customers—and in this case the government has so far been hands-off.

Ben Thompson:

The specific case of Apple and the iPhone raises an additional angle: should the importance of the market in the question make a difference as well?


Apple consistently acts like a company peeved it is not getting its fair share, somehow ignoring the fact it is worth nearly $2 trillion precisely because the iPhone matters more than anything. This is not a console you play to entertain yourself, or even a PC for work: it is the foundation of modern life, which makes it all the more disappointing that Apple seems to care more about its short term bottom line than it does about the users and developers that used to share in its integration upside; if Apple doesn’t change course, hyperessential will at some point trump hypercompetitive.

Jeff Johnson:

The top selling game console Nintendo Switch has over 2000 games.

The iOS App Store and Google Play Store each have over 2 million apps. They’re not consoles. You can effectively curate a few thousand titles, but not a few million.

Nick Heer:

Perhaps there is a difference between app distribution expectations on game consoles and smartphones. In my mind, it feels like there ought to be. But I am having a difficult time articulating why that ought to be so. Perhaps it is as simple as the smartphone being a convergence device, while a game console is intended primarily as a single-purpose appliance.

Matt Birchler:

The PlayStation 4 is fundamentally a game playing device, and allowing random software to run on it is not going to change that. There have been plenty of open gaming platforms to hit the market, and despite this open nature and the ability to technically run anything, all of them have just been game playing devices.


At the end of the day, the smartphone is likely the most important single piece of hardware in most people’s lives. You basically must own a smartphone today, and if you’re going to get one in 2020 and you live in the US, then 46% of you will get an iPhone and 54% will get an Android phone. That’s it, there are no other players in the market, so we don’t have a monopoly, but we sure do have duopoly.


The “what about consoles” argument also ignores history— 4 years ago Epic broke Sony’s platform rules by adding cross-play between consoles to Fortnite. They demonstrated to consumers that Sony had a bad rule (that hurt them), Sony was pressured into changing it and everyone won.

Nick Heer:

I certainly fall on the side of considering smartphones more as general purpose computers, but the arguments Gruber has been setting up have got me thinking harder about it. It is a difficult line to draw: why should a PlayStation not be considered a computer like the one at your desk? But, also, why should an iPhone be thought of as closer to a Mac than an Apple Watch? I am not arguing that it should not — I fully believe that there are differences between all of these devices — but I have not seen a clear articulation for why that is.

Michael Love:

Apple doesn’t heavily subsidize their hardware and then make it up on proprietary game sales like console makers do; if Apple lost $200 on every iPhone they shipped it’d be a whole lot easier for them to justify their 30%.

Tim Sweeney:

Consoles are unique in that the hardware is sold at or below the cost of manufacturing, and is subsidized by software sales, whereas iOS and Android are insanely profitable for Apple and Google from just hardware sales and ads.

Chris Holcomb:

The difference is that switching game consoles is easy for gamers. But switching computing platforms (iOS/Android/etc.) that have photos, contacts, dozens or hundreds of accounts and apps ... this is hardship for most and enables monopoly.

The second (related) distinction is that almost all adult Americans are tied to a mobile computing platform. Far fewer own a single gaming system. There are far more negative economic outcomes due to monopolies in general computing platforms.

Steve Troughton-Smith:

Apple have built one of the two dominant computing platforms of the next 30 years, and as a result of how they’re running it, ensure that nobody else but them can ever build on top of it and do anything that’s not pre-approved by Apple, stifling innovation and harming consumers

Michael Love:

The problem with all of these “App Review is the only thing keeping us safe” takes is that even if you buy that idea, there’s no reason why that has to be coupled with an App Store.

Like, why not just add a human review element for iOS app notarizarion? Would do whatever it is they do now minus the business model stuff. Can charge a per-submission fee to cover the cost if you don’t simply include it with developer program membership.

Will Strafach:

iOS could allow Notarized apps like macOS. still have same App Store, still managed, let the users decide whether their preference is Apple’s 30/15 offering or an alternate download.

Adam Faircloth:

As long as App Store is the only way to install apps (and it is, TestFlight/jailbreak not viable), rules should be:

-app doesn’t wreck the device
-app doesn’t trick or cheat the user

And that’s it. Apple doesn’t have to promote every app, but they should be allowed.

Michael Love:

iOS sideloading, done right, would open up vast new opportunities for developers while preserving all of the parts of the current system that actually benefit users; Apple should seize the opportunity to do it well, rather than wait and eventually have to do it poorly/grudgingly.

Also, a seamless, Apple-y version of sideloading - tap on a link and tap on an alert and the app installs - would actually be a fairly bad outcome for Facebook/Epic et al, since it would dampen the prospects for 3rd party stores and encourage small devs to distribute directly.

Tanner Bennett:

[As] soon as tech giants can threaten to leave the App Store, Apple will be forced to implement agreeable payment rules to keep apps like Netflix and Prime from jumping ship.

In all likelihood nothing will change as far as grandma is concerned.

Jeff Johnson (tweet):

The iOS App Store has been compared alternatively to a retail store and to a game console. Retail stores and game consoles are very different entities, so I’m not sure how, rhetorically speaking, both comparisons are allowed and considered apt. In any case, neither comparison is accurate, presently or historically. We know the origins of the App Store, because it originated only a dozen years ago. The model for the App Store wasn’t retail stores. It wasn’t game consoles. It wasn’t even the smartphones that existed at the time. The model for the iPhone App Store was the iTunes Music Store.


The term “app console” has been coined recently to describe the iOS app business model, but in my opinion it would be more accurately termed an “app jukebox”.


It’s worth noting that iTunes does let you import music from outside the iTunes Music Store.

But try getting your own music into the iOS Music app without using a computer.

Matt Birchler:

I’m just saying, I much preferred the “Macs are trucks, and iPads are cars, but they’re both computers” metaphor we’ve used for a decade. What happened to that in the past week?


Update (2020-08-24): Thomas Brand:

@gruber opened my eyes, iOS is an app console. For some people the restrictions and advantages of a console make for good personal computer, but I will never look at an iPad or iPhone’s future potential the same way again. Far too restrictive.

Matt Birchler:

We no longer say, “Macs are trucks and iPads are cars,” instead we say, “Macs a general purpose computers and iPads are consoles, did you actually think there were similar?”

We no longer say, “the iPad can replace your Mac,” instead we say, “the iPad is a totally different product with totally different distribution, and it will never be anything like a Mac.”

We no longer say, “there’s an app for that,” instead we say, “there’s an app for that as long as its business model fits in with the App Store rules written in 2008 and Apple gets 30% of whatever you’re selling, even if you don’t sell it in app, unless you’re Netflix or some other big company.”

We no longer ask, “what’s a computer?” Instead we ask, “we all know what computers are, and iPads are no computers.”

See also: Accidental Tech Podcast.

Update (2020-09-18): Fred Wilson:

Coinbase, Epic, and Spotify are not alone in their struggles with Apple and Google. They are simply large enough and protected enough to go public with their struggles. The truth is every developer that distributes software through these two app stores struggles with them.

In what world does it makes sense for two large and powerful companies to completely control software distribution on mobile phones? In no world does it make sense. It must stop.

The control also extends to the Mac.

8 Comments RSS · Twitter

Old Unix Geek

John Gruber is dead wrong, and he should know better. There is a world of difference between skin-in-the game and rent-seeking. One is honourable, the other isn't.

The model of selling razors, or printers, or consoles under cost, and making up the difference in razor-blades, ink, or console game cartridges is skin-in-the-game: if customers don't like your complimentary products, they'll stop buying them, and you'll have made a loss on all your console sales.

Skimming 30% of the top, taking no risk at all for developing an app, and claiming you charge for a derisory amount of work is rent-seeking. They're even lying to their customers that this is to ensure that their platform is more secure than Android. It isn't: https://www.wired.com/story/android-zero-day-more-than-ios-zerodium/

It's worth noting that Epic previously won against Sony's Playstation consoles and got them to change their rules: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:https://onezero.medium.com/how-fortnite-became-powerful-enough-to-break-sony-d6a4e4dcdb65&strip=1&vwsrc=0

App console? I am at a loss for words. I…I…well, okay…I mean seriously, I really am not sure how to even comment at this point, but I will give it a try.

The reason Apple has been downplaying the term "personal computer" in their ads (everyone remember the "What's a PC" iPad ad?) is the very fact they sell overpriced consoles at above cost prices and then double dip on app sales. Seriously screw Apple and anyone performing these mental gymnastic thought exercises, contorting logic to justify regurgitating the company line, should be incredibly embarrassed. These devices were not pitched as consoles but the logical evolution of personal computers. Go back and read John Gruber's original iPad thoughts:
"I think The Tablet is nothing short of Apple’s reconception of personal computing."

Look, if this story was solely focused on Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, etc. I find it hard to believe there would be too many single sourced consumers from the Apple camp defending the status quo. No, that is not fair, this is not really regular consumers, these are partisan pundits masquerading as journalists unleashing their full PR onslaught on why Apple is not the bad guy here.

Rene Ritchie, to call out another pundit, is arguing (one of his points, don't worry there is more spin to enjoy in the video) Apple's huge investment in Swift, Xcode,tooling, and frameworks as justification for Apple's 30% cut…never mind people primarily use Swift, XCode, and iOS specific frameworks because it is specifically mandated by Apple. Apple is not selling tools per se, but mandating platform development lock-in with their platform specific toolset.

Ps Google sucks for many reasons too, I am under new allusions that Google is some sort of altruistic organization. However, and this is the big difference, if you do not like Google's take on Android, you can:
A. Side load apps, including third party app stores.
B. Fork Android and leave it Google free, see Fire devices and most of China.

I am not thrilled with the Google Play Store either, but it is by far the lesser of two evils and can be completely sidestepped by the discerning user. Apple does not need to abolish the app store or even reduce their cut necessarily, just allow sideloading and many complaints cease to be. Yes, of course Apple would never give up their monopoly on App Store income, but they should consider it.

I don’t understand why people are defending console makers so much. I mean the proper response to the "console makers do it, too" should be "that’s bad, too“.

Applying different judgement to console makers just weakens the argument.

Your net neutrality comparison hit the nail on the head for me. For a while I have been trying to reconcile the "it's a platform they built so they can do what they want" thought with the needed allowances for development, and I think that is exactly it. They have created a pipeline that connects developers to users, and it is now their charge to keep that pipeline neutral.

Because of the scale and importance of these platforms, I think a better analogy is something like network neutrality.


Even ignoring the iPad, though — the phone is already the most important computing device in most of the world (especially in regions of the world where the 1990s’ PC revolution never happened to the same extent). Thus, the (effectively only) two platform owners Apple and Google have become utility companies.

I understand the point people who bring up “app consoles” are trying to make. And I do think that’s the way Apple looks at it. But you can’t have it both ways: either it’s a device just like a game console, but with apps (and games), or it’s a hugely popular and important part of people’s everyday lives. The latter case calls for regulation.

John Gruber is dead wrong, and he should know better. There is a world of difference between skin-in-the game and rent-seeking. One is honourable, the other isn’t.

Gruber expanded on this in his podcast. What his tweet expresses is how he thinks Apple sees it.

Ps Google sucks for many reasons too, I am under new allusions that Google is some sort of altruistic organization. However, and this is the big difference, if you do not like Google’s take on Android, you can:
A. Side load apps, including third party app stores.
B. Fork Android and leave it Google free, see Fire devices and most of China.

I am not thrilled with the Google Play Store either, but it is by far the lesser of two evils and can be completely sidestepped by the discerning user.

I would point out that this isn’t as practical as it sounds. Epic tried that by being exclusively outside the Play Store for a while, and it simply didn’t lead to enough sales.

Gruber went through this, and apparently, you have to first allow Chrome to install apps, then allow the Epic Store to do so. They could’ve left out the second part and that would’ve been a little less of a deterrent, but it seems to be enough, regardless, for people not to want to install the game.

(Either way, I’ve been wishing since the introduction of gatekeeper in 10.8 Mountain Lion that iOS would reach that point from the other direction: that it, too, would one day gain a radio button that allows “sideloading”.)

Didn't Epic get like 15-20 million installs in the first 21 days with the direct download method? That's pretty nice actually.

[…] discussion of App Consoles came up on Lobsters […]

Leave a Comment