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Why developers should reject Apple's App Store

Web apps alternative to App Store

PC Advisor explains why some developers are rejecting Apple’s App Store in favour of web-based apps.

When the iPhone debuted in 2007, developers who wanted to build applications for Apple's smartphone had only one option: make a web app that would be accessible through the handset's built-in Safari browser.

"We've come up with a very sweet solution," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said at the time, as he hailed the web-based approach as an "innovative new way to create apps for the iPhone".

Four years later, some iOS developers are finally embracing that approach – even though Jobs might now prefer that they avail themselves of the App Store instead.

In August, Amazon unveiled Kindle Cloud Reader, an iPad-optimised web application for buying and reading e-books that also works in desktop versions of Safari and Google Chrome. The announcement followed a move by the Financial Times in June to launch a web app of its own.

Analysts have pondered what's behind the sudden and steady increase in iPhone- and iPad-focused web apps when there's a perfectly good – and thriving – App Store for pushing wares to iPhone, iPod touch and iPad owners. A leading cause may be Apple's own rules about App Store offerings.

Apple relented on its web-based approach to mobile apps in 2008, opening the App Store and offering developers a chance to build native programs for the iPhone.

App makers embraced the iPhone and the App Store model, even though it meant agreeing to Apple's very detailed restrictions and often lengthy review process.

See also: Group test: what are the best Android apps?

Apple App Store: A changing game

In February this year, when Apple unveiled iOS subscriptions, things began to change.

It mandated that developers hand over 30 percent of their earnings from all app sales, just as they do with purchases made via the apps themselves. It insisted that in-app purchases must be priced at or below the prices of those digital goods, and that any paid-for digital content that enhances an app must also be offered through Apple's official in-app purchasing system.

For Amazon, this was a step too far. Apple's changes meant it would need to add its 950,000 e-book titles to the in-app purchasing programme – an impossible task, given Apple's current developer tools.

By June, Apple reversed some of those polices. The price-matching requirements were axed, but Apple reiterated its strict policy that apps must not contain links to web-based digital stores for their content. Come July, every major iOS e-reading app had removed links to their web stores. In fact, Google Books had to be pulled from the store entirely and replaced a few hours later with an updated version of its app with the store link removed.

The result of these rules: e-book apps can't link back to their e-book stores, so customers must know or independently discover the URLs for those stores and access them directly. And each time an app maker wants to update a product, it's subject to another round of Apple's approval process. Apple has also demonstrated that it retains the right to update its App Store policies at any time, and apps that do not comply face eviction from the store.

Rejecting the Apple App Store

While many app makers are prepared to abide by Apple's policy changes, others are finding the restrictions a step too far. Amazon's response was to launch the Kindle Cloud Reader web-based app.

The Kindle web app doesn't just include a link to Amazon's Kindle Store, it has an excellent iPad-optimised browsing experience that works better than the company's desktop website. For finding and buying e-books from an iPad, it's by far the best option. Amazon can update its web app whenever it needs to, with no approval process to delay the changes, and no restrictions on what it can and can't do.

But in launching its Kindle Cloud Reader app on the web, Amazon didn't pull the native Kindle app from Apple's App Store.

For the time being at least, the two apps will co-exist. That may be because the web app's reading experience pales in comparison to the native app. It also reflects the fact that iOS users are well-trained to visit the App Store – not Safari – to discover apps, and Amazon feels it can't afford to have no Kindle app presence in Apple's shop.

Amazon's not alone. The Financial Times also maintains an App Store presence.

Apple App Store: Money talks

Both these web apps are free to use, at least at first. Each makes its money through the web equivalent of in-app purchases – Amazon with its books, and the Financial Times with its subscriptions. The web as a platform may seem less appealing to people developing entirely free apps, or those that rely on in-app advertising to make their money: Apple's not raking the 30 percent off the top, and it's still got the best iOS device distribution in town.

We could yet see many more companies follow Amazon and the Financial Times' lead, embracing the web model over Apple's store.

Web apps can work offline with HTML5 storage, they can place app-like icons on your homescreen, and they can include content App Store apps can't. If you want to browse the complete archives of Playboy magazine, for example, there's an app for that – but it's web-only.

How Jobs will react if app developers and publishers continue to innovate on the web-app side, bypassing Apple's rules and its 30 percent commission, remains to be seen. Although Apple once thought of the web as the only way to develop apps for iOS, the company hasn't updated its list of iOS-friendly web apps since December. And while a company as profitable as Apple probably wouldn't fret over losing out on the 30 percent share it might otherwise get from some apps on the App Store, it's important to remember that Apple is staffed not just by creative types, but shrewd business minds.

Thus, if web apps truly take off (a big if, given that the App Store comes preinstalled on every device and offers access to hundreds of thousands of apps) and Apple becomes unhappy with the native-to-web-app evolution, the company will surely find a way to halt that theoretical App Store exodus – probably by loosening its rules.

However, we suspect that Apple isn't really distracted by Amazon, the Financial Times and others. By creating their impressive web apps, these companies are proving Apple's long-standing line that such apps are indeed a viable alternative to the App Store. Apple can continue offering the curated experience its sensibilities demand, proudly pointing all the while to the fully acceptable ‘other way' embraced by large companies in its defence whenever the next inevitable App Store controversy arises.

Apple's position is easy to understand: there would be no iOS app market were it not for iOS, and the company can therefore run its App Store however it likes. Apple's content for customers to think that it's easier to just use the iBooks app – with its exempted, permitted built-in bookstore – than fiddle with Amazon's native or web apps.

To Apple, then, the slow-paced rise of decent iOS web apps is a win-win: it proves the company's point that such apps are a realistic App Store alternative, and it can reverse course at any time should the company feel that the App Store model is in any way threatened. Our guess is that any such threat is a long way off.

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