Saturday, February 18, 2012

App store restrictions hurt creativity

Creativity is risky

There is a lot of talk of creativity and its formal sibling: innovation. Companies love to talk about how innovative their new gadget is, even if it is a marginal improvement over the previous product. The word innovation gets thrown around a lot, even though true innovation is rare. It seems like every other story about American competitiveness is about spurring innovation and boosting creativity.

Let's listen to one of the most creative game developers of all time, Tim Schafer. This guy is so good that even Yahtzee, the Zero Punctuation game reviewer, found Tim's game Psychonauts to be fantastic. It is one of the rare times that Yahtzee has loved a game, so it pays to take notice. Game players love Tim Schafer's games too. For his next game, Tim Schafer asked donors to pledge money towards the development of the next game. He was hoping for $400k in a month. He got it in less than eight hours. So creativity is still rewarded, except that mainstream game distributors won't touch anything creative: it is too risky. By definition creative and innovative stuff is risky. If it wasn't risky, it would be a minor improvement over an existing formula. Most creative stuff lies somewhere between the vast lands of very risky and the seas of batshit crazy.  Minecraft was in the batshit crazy realm for me. To this day I cannot understand what the lure is, despite having bought it and played it. But clearly it is popular, and its creator, Notch deserves every penny of his wealth for having tried something risky.

All this suggests that creativity is well and alive, and the US has even found way of rewarding it. Tim and Notch seem to have gotten rich by merit alone.

Yet the world of an indie developer is precarious. It is difficult to get noticed, and it is difficult to maintain a connection with the consumer when you are a small guy. Everyone has heard of Nintendo, and when they come out with another crappy Zelda remake, at least I can explain the background to my mom. She might not understand gaming, but even she has heard of the Wii. So any game by the Wii guys might be a good gift for the grandkids. Independent game developers aren't stocked at Best Buy or Walmart. They rely on selling direct to customer: it is a high risk, low margin proposition. The biggest problem is gaining exposure and getting customers to pay up and try the game.

The most innovative idea in Indie game distribution has been the indie bundle. The first one appeared four years ago, and it is such a successful idea that this year there was a small army of competing bundles. This year Steam had four or five bundles, and it was hard to remember what the original was. The Indie guys even did an Indie bundle for Android recently. They sold four high-quality Android games, and collected a million dollars from people like me. The games are refreshingly innovative: a cube moving in a maze, another about an ameoba eating everyone smaller than it.

No Indie for iStore

In all this love-fest, it is easy to forget  that there was no Indie bundle for iPhone.


Oh yeah, that other phone platform. There can be no Indie bundle for the iPhone, given the extremely restrictive app store model. On an iPhone, users cannot install software from any source. They can only install software from the App store. And once they buy an app, they cannot download the installer for future use. They must download it every time from the App store. The cost is fixed: it is a single price per country. And Apple gets a 30% cut from it. Each of these restrictions makes the indie bundle model difficult.

The Indie bundle relies on consumers naming their price. If they pay more than the average amount, they get some extra goodies. Other than this, the games you download for $10 are the very same you download for $20. All the games are unlocked, with no copy protection. The indie model works well: you pay once and you have the game forever. You can keep a copy of the game installer (.apk file) around and install it on any of the multiple devices that you may own.

I even let my wife try out one of the games by installing it on her Android phone. She didn't pay for it! Oh, no. But this is fine, even encouraged under the terms of the Indie Bundle.  This is how the creative and innovative ideas take hold.

Desktop systems will restrict applications

Due to the restrictions in its App Store, an iPhone Indie bundle will be nearly impossible. But at least you can get these games on the Mac.  Not for long. The desktop world is moving towards restricting applications as well.

Exhibit #1 is Microsoft's next operating system. Metro applications are the new style of Windows applications. These can only be downloaded and installed from Microsoft's app store. No indie nothing, all developers have to go through the App store. An App store in itself is not bad, but at the current low margins, the developers would love to sell direct to the customer. Osmos, one of the games in the Indie bundle, is sold directly on their site for Android, Mac and Linux.  (Of course they cannot sell it directly for iPhone, since iPhone users cannot install anything outside the App store).  Tim Schafer's next game will be sold direct to customers as well. It's the only way small developers can make money with their risky innovation and their slim margins.

Exhibit #2 is Apple. In Mountain Lion, Apple hopes to include a feature which will only allow applications from their own app store. For now, there are three levels of security: (A) you can install App-store only, (B) App-store plus some good guys, and (C) anyone. You can select any one of these options today. My guess is that a future update will require a system to be restricted to choice A: app-store purchased apps only. This is the most restrictive, and it allows Apple the greatest control over your computer. Perhaps Apple will come out with a new version of GarageBand, which is free if your OS is restricted to App-store only apps. These choices are managed by the software called Gatekeeper. The write-up on Gatekeeper is an exercise in double-speak. From their website,

What is malware?

Malware is malicious software that can come from anywhere on the web. Anyone can unknowingly download and install malware because it’s deviously disguised as something else. Once you’re tricked into downloading it, malware can damage your computer and even gather sensitive information about you. While malware is one of the biggest security challenges on personal computers, it’s hardly an issue on a Mac. And Apple is working hard to see that it won’t be.

They admit that malware isn't a problem on a Mac, though Mac has been unrestricted till now. So there really is no reason for restricting installs to an app store from the malware perspective. This talk of restricting installs is nonsense for very good reasons.

First, even Apple's curated and anointed iPhone apps leak more private data than the apps on an open store on the same platform [PDF of research study]. So much so for the high trust blessed apps.

Second, Apple's desktop software has been wide open for years, and it hasn't had any problem with malware. Malware is a direct result of poor system design. Microsoft Windows had malware because every program was running as administrator. Every system has bugs, and when every software runs as administrator, every bug can lead to the attacker taking full control over the system. Mac OS had a Unix-style separation of administrator and user. Bugs in the browser don't lead to the entire system being compromised. This is why Mac OS doesn't have malware, not because some cool dudes in turtlenecks are ensuring the high pedigree of every app.

The only winner in the restrictive app store model is the app store owner. At the end of the day, 30% of all revenue is a pretty good deal for moving bits around, especially when the Internet is already doing all the heavy lifting.

(Image courtesy Hugh MacLeod)