The recent unveiling of Amazon’s marketplace for Android apps got me thinking about digital commerce and its seemingly steady march towards becoming a reflection of real-world commerce. Currently, you can only buy mobile apps in a few digital mega-stores, but this sparse landscape may eventually be filled with Ma and Pa app stores of all stripes, each one serving a specific demographic by offering a curated selection of apps. The prevailing trend towards more social computing all but guarantees it.
If you’re only familiar with the Apple’s iTunes App Store — the sole marketplace where an iPhone or iPad owner can purchase apps for their devices — you may not be aware that, while Google runs an official app marketplace for devices running their Android platform, there are several other marketplaces where Android device owners can buy apps. In fact, Google has structured Android, their mobile operating system, to allow users and mobile device manufacturers a great deal of freedom when it comes to applications. This ethos that values flexibility and customization allows device makers to pre-install their own apps and, more relevantly for most of us, allows users to download Android apps from anywhere on the Internet that they please.
THE PROBLEM WITH BIG
Like the iTunes app store, the official Google app marketplace has been widely criticized as being difficult to shop. The number of apps available for mobile devices has grown so large that the simple but simplistic shopping strategies employed in both of these marketplaces are now insufficient to connect users with the apps they seek — assuming a user even knows that an app they might want exists. Only the editorially featured and most popular apps are easily surfaced for the consumer. For everything else, word-of-mouth, blogging, and advertising are the only real hope for an app to find its audience. An overhaul of these nascent app shopping experiences is long overdue. (I’m looking at you, iTunes.)
Additionally, because Google doesn’t stringently vet applications as part of the approval process, the Google Android Market has become known as a sort of Wild West. Malicious, buggy, or misleading applications seem to find their way onto the phones of unsuspecting users all too often. Apple takes advantage of this supposed side-effect of freedom to justify their highly-restricted-but-safe “walled garden” system. However, I am fairly certain it is possible for freedom and safety to coexist within an online community if it is given the right tools.
Since they don’t happen to own an operating system, Amazon’s mere presence in the app business suggests that there is room for a variety of storefronts in the app business — that apps, like cans of Coke, should be available not just in a Walmart, but from any store that wishes to sell them. I bet the Internet is full of app connoisseurs who would gladly evangelize their favorite apps in exchange for a little cash or a reward of some kind.
In the future, given enough consumer demand and developer support, opening a curated gallery of digital experiences for sale could be as easy as installing WordPress. Instead of just recommending apps, Gizmodo, New York Times, or your local Girl Scout Troop could offer their favorite apps for sale. A free market for digital experiences would be totally cool, and it would shift the power of app recommendations into the hands of those that do it best — friends, family, and brands whose values the consumer already sympathizes with. These specialized app shops may not have the breadth of apps that a super-store like Apple, Google or Amazon would, but they would be able to offer a trusted sensibility and inspiring curation.
Superstores are mega-profitable and efficient entities, so it looks like they are here to stay. However, besides offering low prices, they are rarely identified as delightful shopping experiences. In the real world, it was a long, slow, profits-driven journey from the neighborhood corner store to the mega mart. In the world of appstores, it appears that journey will be precisely the opposite, the power of commerce moving down from the big companies and out into the hands of the little guy. I’m betting it will happen because people will always demand boutique shopping experiences. One could argue it is this same love of the boutique sensitivity to purpose that has made apps a more popular experience on mobile devices than the web browser.
I believe e-commerce, like most cultural experiences, is constantly seeking equilibrium between efficiency and authenticity. The engineers of today’s Internet have plied the system with a lot of the former, but not so much of the latter. The contemporary shift toward more ‘social’ digital experiences is the inevitable result of the system trying to balance itself. Entrepreneurs and engineers now building software platforms and tools that give more than lip service to this shift will surely ingratiate themselves into the hearts and wallets of today’s humanity-starved Internet goers.
Apple is setting itself up as the Starbucks of mobile app retailers, increasingly offering a safe and efficient retail model tuned to a mass market scale. They are sure to remain a successful business that will always have its place. However, I believe Google’s Android will eventually see massive returns on the truly social experiences that are sure to result from the openness of the platform and their business model. For true authenticity to be expressed, you must empower the people not just as consumers, but also as implicit owners of a culture on all levels.
The revolution is coming to the way we buy, sell, and trade apps.