Linux Foundation Chief: Apple’s App Store Business Model Unsustainable

Apple’s business model for the App Store is unsustainable, according to Linux Foundation head honcho Jim Zemlin. In an interview with Wired magazine, Mr. Zemlin praised Apple’s work in making the user experience a great one, but made his case for the future belonging to Linux.

The Linux Foundation describes itself as a non-profit consortium dedicated to promoting Linux. The organization provides guidance and help to companies wanting to implement Linux-based products and services, pays some of the key kernel developers involved with the operating system, and also serves as a watchdog group to protect Linux’s legal interests. Mr. Zemlin is the Executive Director of the Foundation.

Jim Zemlin

Jim Zemlin
Executive Director
The Linux Fundation

His comments about Apple started with the App Store’s dominant position in selling smartphone apps, with Wired making the argument that Apple’s App Store has made it easy for developers to make money, and that this gets those developers to buy into Apple’s ecosystem instead of Linux (in this case instead of Android, which is based on Linux).

Mr. Zemlin said that Apple’s early dominance isn’t going to result in the same long-term dominance of the market that Microsoft achieved with desktop computers, saying, “I think there will be a healthy industry rebalancing there. It’s unlikely in my mind that Apple will end up with the same de facto API standard that Microsoft achieved in the 1980s and ’90s.”

He also echoed the same kind of argument that Mac users used to make when the platform was much smaller than it is today and Windows users argued that there weren’t enough Mac apps. At that time, many Mac users (including this one) argued that while there were many more Windows apps in any given category than on the Mac platform, the reality was that the most important apps, and the best apps, were either also available for the Mac or only available on the Mac.

Today those arguments rarely take place as the Mac platform has never been so healthy and vibrant, but the Linux camp may be feeling that same sort of heat in the commercial smartphone market.

“Other companies are launching their own app stores now, Mr. Zemlin said. “If you want to be on par with the Apple App Store, it’s totally within reach. There are about 200,000 apps in the Apple store. But really, the top ten pages are the only ones that matter. I’ve got to have Pandora, Tweetdeck, Facebook.”

He added, “There are very few apps you need to buy, so the important thing is to get the good free apps ported to your platform. I think it’s an advantage Apple has right now, but it won’t be a huge competitive advantage when the next cool device comes along and everyone wants to port to it.”

Mr. Zemlin also feels that Apple’s control over the App Store and the iOS platform is something users and developers won’t put up with forever. He believes that the Open Source model will eventually put into place mechanisms that compete with Apple’s App Store, and that this will force changes on Apple in the long run.

“[The Open Source] model will get ironed out over the next couple of years,” Mr. Zemlin said. “And it’s better than the alternative, which is iTunes. But nobody’s going to give Apple 30 percent of gross revenue forever. Even services are all through Apple. That’s so absurd, and just unsustainable.”

Despite his criticism of Apple’s controlling ways, Mr. Zemlin took time to praise the company for changing the marketplace, and for its role in making the smartphone market a market that is not dominated by Microsoft.

“In a way,” he said “Apple is the best thing that’s happened to Linux in years. It wakes up the whole industry to say ‘Hey, we need an app store, too. We want to start offering value-adds on top of our hot new product.’ And the only platform they can use to get up and running quickly is Linux. You’re not going to build a proprietary operating system to compete with iOS overnight.”

He added, “Creating a really good user experience is the hardest part. There are things you can do with power management and boot times and responsiveness to make some kick-ass hardware, and Linux is really good at that. But at the end of the day, good user interface design is key. And it’s an art, it takes discipline. Apple is great at that.”

He did not explain how the Linux community or those companies who use Linux, Linux derivative, or other Open Source models, participants not known for such discipline, can learn how to become user interface designers and artists.

“You’re talking to a guy who spent a decade fighting against Microsoft on the desktop,” he offered as a conclusion for his interview. “The whole time, our greatest enemy was the WinAPI. And that’s gone now. So, thank you, Apple. That’s a great gift.”

There’s more about Linux, the smartphone market, and the future of a computer-networked world in the full interview.