The web browser was an incredible thing for innovation and technological progress. Before it came onto the scene, Microsoft ruled the world because it controlled the operating system. And due to that control, app developers basically had no choice, but to develop apps on the windows OS. To develop for a different operating system was to severely limit your chances of reaching tons of end users and thus building a business of any significance.
But the browser changed that. It meant that it didn’t really matter what type of hardware you purchased and what type of OS came pre-installed. It leveled the playing field. As long as someone had an internet connection and a browser, they could access web-based applications. This state of affairs allowed for companies like Amazon, Google, Ebay, Facebook and many others to thrive and wrest some power from Microsoft (the fact that Microsoft is once again the most valuable company on the planet notwithstanding).
Keep this in mind as we slightly change topics. We’ll be circling back to the browser and its significance.
Many of you know that I’m currently working with a friend to get a software business off the ground. And part of that equation involves a mobile strategy, given that mobile is taking an ever-increasing share of web traffic. And if you’re in the US, that means ensuring that your software shows up in the Apple App Store if you want to ensure easy access and maximum distribution.
If you’ve ever tried to publish an app to the App Store, you’ll know that it must go through a review process. An unbeknownst to many, this is a human review process wherein every app is reviewed by a human being. And broadly, I’d say this is a good thing. Apple is playing a gatekeeper role to protect consumers by ensuring that malicious software doesn’t make it into the store. But there’s also a downside. If you operate a company and you compete with Apple, your apps must also go through this review process. And not only does Apple get to review the apps, they also take a 30% cut of your revenues for providing this service.
This situation lies at the center of Spotify’s recent complaint against Apple
filed with the European Commission. Spotify is suggesting that Apple is engaging in anti-competitive behavior because 1) it claims that Apple frequently rejects its app upgrades (degrading its customers’ user experience), and 2) Apple takes a 30% cut of Spotify’s revenues. It’s not that the 30% cut, in and of itself, is a bad thing (remember, the role that Apple plays as a middle man has value). But rather, Spotify’s main competitor is Apple Music. So given that both Apple and Spotify must pay a huge portion of their revenues to music labels and artists, as they should, to allow Apple to then take an additional 30% of revenues from Spotify does not leave them with much capital to operate the business, market to new customers, and the like. Thus, Apple has an inherent competitive advantage.
But let’s come back to the power of the web browser. It seems many developers these days are opting to build what are known as “progressive web apps,” as opposed to native mobile apps. From Wikipedia:
Progressive web applications (PWAs) are web applications that load like regular web pages or websites but can offer the user functionality such as working offline, push notifications, and device hardware access traditionally available only to native applications. PWAs combine the flexibility of the web with the experience of a native application.
There are a couple of important things to note about PWAs (likely many more, but I’m not a developer).
First, you usually install them by navigating to a company’s mobile site. When you land there, you get the “add to home screen” dialog box. This adds an icon to your phone’s home screen so it appears just like any other app. But importantly, you have circumvented the App Store and thus don’t have to give up any of your revenue to Apple.
Second, from a development standpoint, things are far more simple. You develop one PWA that works for every browser, OS, and device type. So you don’t have to worry about developing an Android app, iOS app, lengthy review processes, and accounting for older device models that only support older versions of the OS.
For these reasons, my technical co-founder has opted to build a PWA for our mobile experience. Makes a ton of sense to me.
So again, it seems the browser may be playing a key role to level the playing field and wrest power from the giants (the fact that the leading browsers are owned by the giants notwithstanding). And I think that is a good thing that will ultimately lead to more innovation and more competition.