Apple, the App Store just isn't you

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I’m not sure anybody—Apple, AT&T, even Google—expected this much outcry over the rejection and removal of Google Voice apps from the App Store. But it's gotten plenty of attention nonetheless—for some it’s becoming the straw that broke the camel’s back. And the effects may continue to ripple even further still.

Steven Frank, co-founder of respected Mac software developer Panic, has said on his blog that he’s planning on ditching the iPhone for a Palm Pre for his own personal use. Tech pundit and blowhard Michael Arrington has likewise decided to give up his iPhone, also pointing to the Google Voice issue. Not everybody agrees: tech analysts Michael Gartenberg and Ross Rubin seem to think this is a geek issue that doesn’t touch the mainstream. And they’re right: it’s probably not something that’s going to hurt Apple’s iPhone sales—especially for those vast majority of consumers who've never heard of Google Voice.

But while the blocking of Google Voice may not directly affect the mainstream, there’s still fallout for the average consumer. From a purely bottom line standpoint it may influence what those early adopters are recommending to their friends and family. It may affect what those geeks and nerds are buying the next time they think about upgrading their mobile devices.

Again, though, that financial impact is likely a mere drop in the bucket. But there’s something far bigger at stake here: this is about stifling innovation. That is bad for the consumer: maybe not in the short run, but certainly in the long run when the iPhone becomes nothing more than a platform for chintzy 99-cent applications that make stupid sound effects.

What's more, it’s surprising coming from Apple, which is why writers like me just won't shut up about the App Store woes. After all, hasn’t Apple always been all about innovation? And yet the App Store has become another example where short-sighted focus undercuts long-term benefit, where the emphasis on making money interferes with the ability for people to make cool things which, if Apple’s oft-repeated boilerplate on creating extraordinary products to delight its customers is to be believed, is the company’s raison d’être. Instead, we're treated to constant bragging about how many apps are available on the store, and how many downloads there have been: as though Apple customers have ever been focused on quantity over quality.

Look, maybe Google Voice wouldn’t be of interest to the average Joe. The point is, without a chance to use it on your handset, how would you know? It wasn’t so long ago that many people thought Twitter was a time-waster that had no appeal beyond tech geeks—and while I’m not disputing its time-wasting potential, let me give you one word: Oprah. Oprah, people.

And even if Google Voice isn’t the Next Big Thing, what about the product after that? And the one after that? What about the next misfit, rebel, troublemaker, round-peg-in-a-square-hole? What are they going to do? Sure, there are those who say “What're they going to do, develop for Android or the Pre? *chuckle, chuckle, guffaw*.” Those people are missing the point: the real danger is not that the people with the brilliant ideas are going to go develop them for some “lesser” platform.

No, the real danger is that they aren’t going to develop those ideas at all.

And when the established developers are telling burgeoning programmers that the App Store is a bag of hurt, well, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement to invest your time and money, is it?

Some say the only way you can influence a corporation is by putting your money where your mouth is. I think that while that’s an effective way of being heard, it’s not the only way. Sometimes you just have to keep drumming the point home, as often and as loudly as possible until the people in charge get the message.

Apple, get the message: the App Store malarkey, it’s not about losing money, it’s about losing what makes you you. That particular quality that makes you a company that people defend to the bone, that they stick with even when times are tough, that they invest in because it resonates with some intangible chord in them. There are those who will say that’s all marketing hype, but I think it’s more than that, because it’s something Microsoft has never had and has never understood, no matter how much it’s spent on marketing. It's something about the way, to date, Apple has done business—like it's not just about “business.”

Two years ago I wrote that in a world where Apple had neutralized all of its historical enemies, the only thing for it to fear was itself—and that’s one piece of prognostication where I would be happy to be proved wrong.

Fix this, Apple. From the top down. And soon. Before you lose whatever it was that made you think different and become just like everybody else.

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