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Apple is a ‘Cathedral’. Google is a ‘Bazaar’. So where will you park your smartphone of the future?


Apple and Google have radically different approaches to building online marketplaces. So will our smartphone apps of the future be delivered from the hallowed alter or the pulsing street?

139iphoneappsFred Wilson writes in The Power of Instant Approval that Apple is risking its lead in the smartphone app market by forcing app developers to wait on approval from Apple before publishing their apps on iTunes Store. It’s a growing industry concern — does Apple risk being overtaken by competitors?

I think Apple understands the consumer relationship better than any competitor in the smartphone market and that’s why in this case, the cathedral can win over the bazaar.

The greater risk is that the industry may turn away from Apple if groupthink decides that Apple’s strategy is flawed. We’ve seen it before.

“Instant publishing” versus “approval process” is an old battle in online publishing, arising from the classic ‘cathedral and bazaar‘ dilemma. The ‘cathedral’ is a marketplace ‘curated’ by expert specialists to ensure quality, conformity and fraud-free experiences. The ‘bazaar’ is a marketplace where ‘caveat emptor’ is the only rule, and consumer-driven social media tools are the way users avoid bad experiences, bad software and bad people.

Bazaars naturally grow wider and faster. Cathedrals are naturally less prone to the risk of law suits and prosecutions. Both good things to have. But if you can’t easily choose both, which do you choose?

It’s extremely hard to design a curation process that scales to the massive growth and depth of the world’s online creativity, with its cultures, subcultures, languages, niches and special interests. If you don’t curate, the threat of getting your ass sued or prosecuted by customers, competitors, regulatory authorities and whole geographies can be enough to scare investors away before you even get started.

It takes more than building and then opening the floodgates to make a successful bazaar. You need location, momentum, viralocity and an engaged customer community that’s prepared to do some of your curation via social media tools. If you don’t open a bazaar, you risk being overtaken by a larger, more dynamic community of users.

Can you do both? Usually, no. It’s easy to end up with twice the cost of curation and half the benefit of the bazaar. You can see what that looks like on Nokia’s Ovi platform. Epic fail.

Cathedrals are sooo uncool

In many publishing settings, a cathedral-based system is best, but cathedrals are sooo uncool, and being uncool can cost you industry sentiment, which can cost you… well, everything in business. I learned this valuable lesson while working at Yahoo! a decade ago.

See, at the beginning, Yahoo!’s founders felt that new submissions to our directory should be reviewed by a team of highly-trained and skilful curators (who we called Yahoo! Surfers.) They would ensure not just that they were good enough to help our users find what they wanted but also that we were able to list them in the correct spot in the Yahoo! directory.

One of the earliest hires at Yahoo! was Srinija Srinivasan, an expert ontologist, to guide our curation strategy. She was (still is, maybe) a Dewey Decimal Rockstar and her team of web surfers were some of the best available, all specialist subject experts, information theoreticians and librarians.

The Yahoo! directory was great quality content. You were really hard-pressed to find a bad website or a poorly placed listing in our directory. And of course, very early on, we knew our model was never going to scale to the growth and scope of the interweb — it could never include every website that was submitted to our surfers. To cover the rest — to have one foot in the bazaar — we worked with Inktomi, AltaVista and a tiny startup called Google to provide search engine results to cover the rest of the web.

Unfortunately, as the Long Tail became the coolest idea in the industry, it seemed like Yahoo! was outsourcing its Long Tail solution to Google. That was a concern to the industry and it began turning the market as a whole against Yahoo! as the best way to find stuff on the web. Now, the number of search results mattered more than the nature of the search results.

While Yahoo!’s solution was still helpful, it wasn’t the coolest thing in town. Google was. Users, advertisers and the new SEO flocked to Google. Everything Yahoo! attempted to claw back that leading perception now felt like catch-up, and it attracted derision and disbelief — sometimes because it was merited, but often just because it was something from Yahoo!.

Uh-oh, iTunes Store is a cathedral, Google is a bazaar

Undoubtedly, iTunes Store is one of the biggest, uncoolest cathedrals in technology. Whether you’re publishing music, TV, movies, podcasts or apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, every piece of content must be reviewed and approved by somebody at Apple.

Like all classic cathedrals, Apple keeps all information on its approval processes and procedures very close to its chest. There is very little information from the company about how the approval process works, how long it takes and what happens if your content gets rejected.

There are many good reasons for this: it’s valuable proprietary information, it is probably evolving rapidly and subject to change and in many cases there is probably a large element of grey area to deal with — editorial calls need to be made unhindered by complex rules and regulations.

There are many bad reasons for this, too — it doesn’t just fail to scale with the growth of the web, but it encourages industry speculation in the form of tweets, blog posts, conference sessions and industry gossip. All that backchannel discussion is negative, and in our hyper-connected online community, it can easily gain enough momentum to become an unstoppable meme that makes the hop from industry to consumer communities, like the one I saw crush Yahoo! as a search destination.

dock-400x352Meanwhile, Google’s Android marketplace is much more like a classic bazaar. It’s easier for developers to get apps out on the Android market, but that doesn’t necessarily help them market, merchandise or build a relationship with new customers. Frankly, Google sucks at both curating and marketing, if its Android, OpenSocial and iGoogle marketplaces are anything to go by. They are all designed for developers first and foremost, with very little thought given to how to create an engaging ‘retail’ experience for consumers.

Do consumers actually want a bazaar for their phone?

Thing is, consumers and app publishers are not a single community — they actually have very different needs from an app marketplace. I don’t think the frustration Joe Developer feels with mysterious app approval processes should make the jump to Joe iPhone Owner.

Most consumers really don’t want a bazaar when it comes to apps right now, especially on mobile phones. An iPhone or an Android phone brings your essential personal information closely together with entertainment, sure, but none of us wants to install anything that might be a security risk or that might impair our ability to make a quick and simple phone call.

Mobile phones have limited screen real estate and input methods that make it harder to browse, evaluate and personalise large volumes of apps. Even when new apps only cost a dollar, most consumer iPhone owners I’ve observed tend to choose one app per category and stick with it if it’s well-designed and well-supported. They would rather have the best app recommended to them by an expert editor than have the choice of 100 apps in one category they need to evaluate and decide on themselves.

Can Apple have a foot in the bazaar too?

Sure, Apple could do a better job of implementing ratings, user reviews and ‘genius’ recommendations to help users recommend the best apps in cluttered categories.

It would really help Apple if it made the review processes for all content sold in the iTunes Store less opaque and unpredictable. There has to be a reasonable middle ground between Apple’s usual default of extreme privacy and giving away trade secrets. Publishers should be able to login to a dashboard of some kind, something that could show a timeline of the stages of the approval process, the average waiting time, the number of apps ahead and behind, all your apps, and flags for any outstanding issues.

Apple’s relevant people should be prepped and allowed to speak about this whole set of issues, to industry conferences, trade publications and in blogs and online documentation. Can you name your favourite ‘iTunes Store Industry Evangelist’? Or even an ‘iTunes Store Publishing Genius’? That’s a terrible omission.

Once an app is on iTunes Store, Apple could really do a better job of providing marketing data on consumer interaction with the app in terms of views, clicks, purchases, as well as anonymised data from apps in the same category to use as a benchmark.

It would also really help if Apple worked on extending its lead on helping developers and publishers market and merchandise their content on iTunes Store. There’s currently no advertising space on iTunes Store – everything is either algorithmically determined or chosen by an iTunes Store editor. Why not lock out some space for publishers to pay to market their apps?

Apple also does nothing to help you market your app outside iTunes Store aside from allowing you to copy and paste the url of the app and the publisher in iTunes Store. Why not provide an RSS or Atom feed of positive reviews and star ratings? Make it easier to create a video of the app in play? Make it easier for app developers to contact customers who’ve bought an app previously?

Industry: you are not a good use-case

If you take just one thing from this lengthy article, take this: we in the industry are not typical consumers. I, for instance, have purchased 139 iPhone apps! That’s extreme, but none of us is the mainstream Joe Consumer by the very fact that we work in the industry and we invest much more in this than Joe Consumer. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that what’s best for the iPhone app developer community is also best for the iPhone consumer community. Think before you lobby for a bazaar over a cathedral.

More good reading on this topic:

Alan Jones is Chief Hindsight Officer at Doing Words. Since 1995, he has consulted to early-stage companies and new product development teams, helping with online strategy for communications, product development and marketing. He also has hands-on experience founding and co-founding web and mobile startups, as well as senior management experience in larger companies including Yahoo!, News Digital Media and Microsoft.