Robert Scoble has a post up about why Apple’s key advantage is the breadth of the app store. And he’s right – but the game isn’t over yet.
85,000 is the headline figure, and what it allows Apple to leverage is a classic “long tail of usefulness”. For me, 99.99% of those applications are (to me) useless crap that would have no bearing on whether I stick with iPhone. Unfortunately for everyone else, that still leaves 8 or 9 apps that act like heavy anchors, dragging me back to Apple’s platform.
But suppose Nokia, Android, or whoever got the developers of those apps to port them to their platform? Great! They’ve won me as a customer. But the problem is that this is a long tail: maybe four or five of those would be common ones, but three or four would be ones which only me and a relatively few other people wanted. So the actual base of applications that are “must haves” would be much wider, in the low thousands at a guess. That’s a long way from Robert’s claim that you need all 85,000, but it’s still a pretty daunting number.
And the experience of Apple in the 90’s, when the Mac was on the back foot, proves that it’s no good having “equivalent” applications – once people get used to having app X, they want app X, not app Y which does pretty much the same thing.
However, there’s a catch: it’s worth remembering that most people haven’t bought smart phones yet. Smartphone penetration remains comparatively tiny, and in the biggest growth markets for phones (Africa, BRIC) it’s still dirt-cheap simple phones which are driving the growth.
And people are used to buying phones on hardware features: the best camera, for example, is a big influence. That’s why Apple has been advertising with “there’s an app for that” – raising a flag for the one big advantage they have. But until you actually use a phone which is infinitely malleable via applications, it’s hard to appreciate why it’s so cool. So it’s not a totally easy sell.
(As an aside, this is the reason why the iPod Touch is so important: it’s a “gateway drug” for the app store. You might not buy an Apple phone, but you might replace your old iPod with the touch… and then find that you love the apps. At which point, you’ll buy an iPhone next time.)
So the game isn’t over yet, and there’s plenty still to play for. But Apple has a head-start, and if I was a betting man, I’d place my money on the iPhone. Essentially, it’s Apple’s lead to throw away – but, as others will no doubt point out, Apple has thrown away leads before.
(Update: John Gruber’s written an interesting response to this, and I’ve written a further response posing what I think is an interesting question: What happens when there aren’t 100,000 apps on the store, but one million?)