Mobile App Store Monopolies and Decentralized Alternatives
"He who controls the warez, controls the world." This is the digital world we live in. In the year 2020, man is almost always clutching one object in his hand. A mobile device. If you flipped a coin four times to decide what operating system was powering this mobile device, it would be an Apple device once and an Android device the other 3 out of 4 times. Anything else would be a rounding error.
Neither Apple nor Google write the majority of the software on those phones. The smartphone has become the way software is consumed by mankind in that more software is installed there than anywhere elses. Billions upon billions of app installations. On Android, this software is mostly free (as in beer), putting powers into the hands of billions of humans that would have seemed like magic a generation ago.
For the sake of argument, let's say that the innovation of an app store has sufficiently dissipated through society and that new innovation in that isn't driving more adoption. It's ubiquitous, like saying there should be a web browser which can download files.
Then we can consider that the platform operators, acting as gatekeepers and rent-seekers now, are actually stifling innovation in some cases. This was in the news just this week with Epic, maker of Fortnite, getting kicked off both Apple's App Store and Google Play store, for allowing their own in-app payment method which countervents the Apple/Google duopoly of mobile app payments. Are these app stores helping app developers and users find each other or are they abusing their position to turn profits on the backs of both developers and users?
One way around the gates would be via unofficial app stores. Apple doesn't support such third party app stores on devices running its mobile operating system (iOS, or iPadOS or whatever now, while macOS isn't quite as strict yet but it's a worrying trend there too). Cydia is a popular app package manager and alternative app store but it only works on iOS devices that have been jailbroken, something that Apple tries to prevent users from being able to do with their own devices. [Side note: Cydia is based on "apt", the same package manager used in Debian/Ubuntu.] While not yet illegal, jailbreaking is strongly disapproved of by Apple and they are constantly throwing up technical barriers to enforce the jail on users, yet jailbreaking is the only way to be able to install software not approved of by Apple. And if you can install apps without Apple's gatekeeping then Apple can't take a cut of the app sale.
Keep in mind that Apple isn't bringing iPhone users to a particular marketplace option out of many. They've also already sold the users a rather expensive piece of hardware.
Apple is really disincentivized against free software (both free as in beer and in speech) because they're not just selling hardware anymore, they are addicted to that software income stream.
Android = Free
Android devices, on the other hand, do not require "jailbreaking" or anything else in order to install software outside of the official Google Play app store.
In reality, a large number of Android users don't use the Google Play store at all. In China, you can't use Google Play or other Google services (yes, Chinese people have been degoogling since back in the day, but only due to the Great Firewall). The Chinese mobile phone market has many Android app stores (like Tencent's, or manufacturers like Huawei, or Xiaomi's MIUI, etc.), none of which are completely dominant and nothing like the market share that Google and Apple enjoy in other countries.
It's not just Chinese consumers who are getting in on this side action. Localized alternative Android app stores are popular in a number of countries outside of the US but are very much unknown outside those countries. So you've probably never heard of the phenomena.
Android is still centralized
Mobile app software distribution suffers from centralization at two major levels. The major point is when one operating system forces or merely strongly encourages users to use their single sanctioned app store. The next level is within the app store, how centralized is control over the app listings and file serving. In the case of most commercial platforms like both Apple's iOS App Store and Google Play, control is completely centralized within those companies. They decide what gets listed and you can only download the files from their servers and otherwise you can't get apps. So Epic / Fortnite had problems with Apple's App Store first but then also with Google Play.
While Apple users will always suffer from more patronizing control, the Android ecosystem has more options. Decentralization of app distribution is possible and exists for Android apps.
There's one alternative Android app store in particular I want to mention because it's good for all Android users regardless of geography. That is F-Droid. Not only is it an alternative app store, it is also a decentralized app distribution platform. There is no single source of software. It's more of a web. What's most interesting about F-Droid is its focus on serving free and open source software (FOSS). It isn't for pirated games or adult content. It's for free software by free software developers.
F-Droid started as a fork of Aptoide. Aptoide is an alternative app store without oversight leading to a reputation of hosting pirated apps although not directly and some of these rogue apps may contain malware. But this is possible because there's less company oversight over what apps are listed (unlike F-Droid where everything must be FOSS) and there's no single source or "store". It's a web, like F-Droid. But it does mean that when the White House tells American Android users they are banned from using TikTok or WeChat, they can continue to download the app from places like Aptoide. Using Aptoide on Android simply requires going to the website and downloading the .apk which you open to install. Google's OS will warn you that it might be unsafe but that's all.
[Side note: Aptoide now integrates with some sort of crypto wallet called AppCoins, using a cryptocurrency of that name. Using cryptocurrency to circumvent the Apple/Google mobile payment duopoly is something to consider for a future post.]
The main model of mobile "app stores" is centralized, with curation and distribution done by one company for Apple devices and one company for Android devices. This can be seen as a monopoly in both domains and the 30% cut that Google/Apple take from everything a developer makes can be seen as a tax rate. Both companies make it difficult to get around. Now they're facing lawsuits from developers who see it as anticompetitive behavior. The companies have also done a nice job of keeping consumers aware of options, similar to how Microsoft made it hard to use an alternative web browser other than Internet Explorer. Developers of free software ($0) won't pay any per-install tax no matter which store they list on, but Apple would much rather get users to pay for software rather than getting it for free and users there have made a habit out of choosing non-free software. Android also isn't GNU nirvana but there's a hierarchy out there and it is something like:
- Android is more open than iOS
- Google Play is the centralized Android app store, F-Droid/Aptoide are the decentralized options (among others)
- F-Droid is the free/open source app catalog, Aptoide is not