Shackles. Walled gardens. Prisons. That’s what we have taken to calling software ecosystems and the companies that control them. Now, companies like Mozilla and Canonical are counting on the Web to break these chains and allow developers to ship their products without being held up by regulations and broken processes.
App marketplaces are a monopoly or duopoly. Windows Phone users can install apps from the Windows Phone Store, iOS users have the App Store, and Android users actually have a choice between the Play Store and Amazon’s Appstore. (Android users can also sideload, or directly install, apps, but that’s likely beyond most users.) If one of those companies takes issue with your app – say, if it allows users to share their cellular connection with other devices or features “insensitive” or graphic material – you’re shit out of luck.
Mozilla wants to change that with Firefox OS, a Web-based mobile operating system. Sure, the company will operate its own Marketplace to make it easier for users to find and install apps, but it also intends to make it easier for others to make their own “app stores” or get their software in front of users sans middleman. Canonical is doing something similar with its smartphone-specific version of Ubuntu, slated for release at the beginning of 2014.
“This idea of ‘can you build and distribute software on your own terms,’ it’s not just a theoretical problem and a freedom issue, it’s also a business issue as well,” Mozilla’s VP of product, Jay Sullivan, says. Even if developers are able to deal with the “hurry up and wait” nature of many platforms (iOS is particularly bad, I hear), there’s the issue of being denied entry for breaking some rule or another. Web technologies, Sullivan argues, could allow developers to bypass those restrictions.
As HTML5 becomes more powerful and better able to support quality applications, developers might be able to eschew vertically-integrated app marketplaces altogether. That’s the idea, anyway. Mozilla is just one of the companies who believes that because HTML5 should be the future of software development because its openly available, doesn’t come with a mile-long list of restrictions on what it should be used for, and is supported by all major platforms and browsers.
Even supposing HTML5 is ready for primetime, which is still a contentious subject, plain-old human laziness could stop any non-official, non-default app marketplace in its tracks. Why go out of your way to download an app when you can probably find an app that does the same thing and has been vetted by one of the large companies? Sullivan gives users a bit more credit for that, arguing that people will be happy to get their mobile software from a variety of sources in the future.
“Back in the day,” he says, “There’d be these westerns, that’d have ‘the’ store that has all the stuff. But over time stores differentiate themselves.”Humans are pretty used to the idea of buying stuff in different stores.” Some platforms could offer advantages, he says, like Amazon and its ease-of-use or Steam and its focus on games.
All of that is true, and it would be nice to not be shackled by Apple’s rules for the iOS App Store (or whatever phrase makes this issue seem the most dramatic and like we aren’t talking about some serious #firstworldproblems). Maybe, with the one-two punch of Firefox OS and Ubuntu, or if other platforms allow developers easier access to potential users, Mozilla’s dreamed future will become a reality.
But for now? We’re all still shopping at the general store, and if they don’t sell what you’re lookin’ for or don’t like your product, well, that’s just the way it is.