The past and future of the iPhone's App Store

It's always been my assumption that, when the original iPhone was first announced, Apple had no plans to offer an App Store. It wasn't until October 2007 that Apple announced its intention to have a SDK that would allow "native third-party applications on the iPhone." That's 10 months after the iPhone was revealed and about 4 months after it was released.

Until then, Apple was pushing Web apps as the sole solution for third-parties.

Now it may be that Apple always knew that it would offer an App Store. As it often does, Apple may have simply kept its plans a secret until they were closer to reality.

But I don't think this is the case here.

For one thing, Apple didn't wait until reality loomed to reveal its plans. After the October 2007 announcement, it took until March 2008 before the SDK was available to developers. It wasn't until July that the App Store opened for business.

What appeared to be forcing Apple's hand was the availability of third-party software via jailbreaking and the resulting clamor (both from users and developers) for Apple to come up with an authorized equivalent.

In other words, Apple appears to have been pushed into this move, somewhat reluctantly. They (especially Steve Jobs) probably would have preferred to keep the iPhone more of a "closed box."

If I'm correct here, this must rank as the biggest unintended success in the history of Apple. The App Store is now acknowledged as overwhelmingly successful (with over 15,000 applications) and is almost certainly the most critical feature that keeps the iPhone ahead of wannabe competitors such as the Palm Pre. Apple executives can thank their stars (or whatever it is they thank) that they were pushed to make this move.

For Apple, the success of the App Store goes beyond helping to sell iPhones. Apple also makes 30% of all the revenue from App Store sales. A recent estimate suggests that Apple may have already made $100 million dollars on such sales. Not earth-shattering for a company as big as Apple. But it's nothing to sneeze at either. And it's only going to get bigger, much bigger, in the year ahead.

My current interest in all of this stems partly from the fact that I may soon have a stake in an iPhone app. The second edition of Take Control of Your iPhone is due out any day, as an ebook PDF. Some time over the next month or so, it may also get released as an iPhone app. This has led me to more closely consider the limitations of dealing with the App Store. One significant limitation is that I will have no ability to offer the book, separate from the App Store. For example, I might wish to send out free copies to potential reviewers. Or I might wish to give a free copy to a few friends. No can do. Even though I will have the book's .ipa file (the format used for iPhone applications), I can't just give a copy to someone. The file won't work unless it's installed via the App Store.

Yes, there are potential solutions here. For starters, Apple will provide us with a limited number of gift codes for the book. But nothing will give us the flexibility we have with the PDF version of the book — or that any developer would have with any application for the Mac (as opposed to the iPhone).

I am obviously not alone in my concerns. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed numerous complaints and feature requests from iPhone developers. At the same time, it noted that "all the developers interviewed say they are more than happy to stick with Apple's App Store." It's obviously working out well overall. And developers remain optimistic that most of their requests will be realized eventually.

Still, I'd like to see the day when you could install apps in iTunes without having to go through the App Store at all. In other words, you could just drag an app from your Mac's drive (perhaps downloaded from the Web) to iTunes, in the same way that you can now drag an mp3 file, and have it work. The App Store would continue as an option, but it would not be required.

I'm not holding my breath. Apps installed via this alternate route would not generate any revenue for Apple — so there's not much incentive for Apple to okay this. It also would amount to Apple-sanctioned jailbreaking, allowing virtually any app on the iPhone without prior review or approval by Apple. Not likely any time soon. But I believe the day will come eventually. Just as the App Store eventually arrived. We just have to wait.

A brief note about the new Cinema Display. Speaking of waiting (how's that for a segue?), a review in Macworld, describes Apple’s new LED Cinema Display as "the company’s first display designed specifically for use with its laptop line." Personally, I find this a bit of a stretch. It would be more accurate to say that the laptops are the only Macs that currently work with the display. Apple's marketing may spin this to suggest that the display was somehow created just for laptops. But that is not really the case. All forthcoming Macs will include the required Mini DisplayPort and will work with the display. That's why I continue to wait, a bit impatiently by now, for these new iMacs, Mac Pros and Mac minis to arrive. I am hopeful that they will be here before summer. I'm getting my wallet ready.