The App Store Is A Republic

It comes down to this fundamental question: How much responsibility do you want for the workings of your device? The religious divide between iOS and Android hinges on this point. There are nerds - and I always use the term affectionately - whose nerdliness depends upon that responsibility. Without it, they feel no control over their computer. There is no doubt that Android places more of that responsibility on the user than iOS does.

Without setting up straw men or comparing apples to oranges, I'll offer an observation: some nerds believe that Apple does not allow its users to achieve their full nerdly potential because it limits their responsibility. We should reframe this argument. Apple nerds do not believe that nerdliness hinges upon responsibility. We would prefer to concentrate our nerd powers on the things we do with our computers.

But we do not surrender control over our devices to the corporation as the Android straw man might allege. Far from it. We elect representatives to fight for control, and sometimes - though not always - Apple listens to them.

The App Store is a republic. The citizens vote with their Apple IDs, downloading the apps that best represent them. The makers of those apps are elected officials. But it's not a congress of equals. It's a meritocracy. The influence of representatives is proportionate to the importance of their apps. Apple, of course, is the president. It has veto power. But it can't make good laws with a hostile congress.

We All Depend On Something

Many Android-style nerds have already thrown up their hands in disgust. This notion of representative platform governance is an assault on their beliefs. It's against the Orthodox Hacker Way. I honor and respect that belief. Thank the Makers there are multiple platform choices.

But that's just it. We all ultimately depend on the Makers. We all sacrifice some control over our platforms. What are you going to do, make your own phone? Maybe someday. But today, we all give up responsibility for some things in exchange for control of other things.

Apples & Androids

Android users maintain the ability to root their devices, but they might be out of luck for future software updates. Apple users must fight against Apple for the ability to jailbreak. But I submit that Apple nerds don't need to jailbreak to be nerdy. Apple users accept the laws of Apple's land, and that is just a different-strokes-for-different-folks proposition.

Within those borders, Apple users are free to be nerds about their tasks, their solutions, their workflows and their aesthetics. They elect the best developers in their world to defend the platform and write the code. They exercise a different kind of nerdiness, a soft nerdiness of finding the best tool for the job, down to every minute detail. If there is no best tool, anyone with the skill, the time and the sensibilities can build it themselves. They can run for office in the App Store.

The Union & The Confederacy

Android has apps. It has app marketplaces, but it's a loose confederacy. Device and OS fragmentation, a relative free-for-all of app availability and a weak judicial system - or app review process - mean that users must cobble together solutions and developers must cobble together businesses. In exchange, Android users, developers and OEMs alike retain more personal responsibility for the experience.

In Apple country, the experience is consistent and set by the president. The App Store is the House of Representatives, and votes are one-to-one. An app means the same thing to all users, so each app is a vote. If Apple users did not vote, if they blindly accepted the solutions put forth by Apple, then they would surrender their nerd cred. But they do vote. They vote for third-party developers. They vote by the hundreds of millions.

Responsibility To Govern

As elected representatives, Apple developers are in a position to speak truth to power. When Apple's unilateral decisions threaten the republic, developers speak out. Apple doesn't always bow to the will of its congress. But it does listen.

When Apple launched iOS 5, it changed the way the system handled two directories: /Caches and /tmp. Before iOS 5, those were safe places for apps to store data. With the introduction of iCloud as Apple's preferred place for files, Apple began to "clean" those directories when devices were low on space. That threatened Instapaper, which stores articles for offline reading in /Caches.

Lesser nerds would have rolled over. President Apple had issued a decree. But Speaker Marco did not give in. He took to his influential blog and outlined the problem. The functionality of a successful and beloved app was in jeopardy.

A month later, when developers received the iOS 5.0.1 beta, the problem had been solved.

Amending The Constitution

To take the analogy just a little further, the constitution of this Republic would be the App Store guidelines. Sure, it was set unilaterally by Apple, but let's say that developers have also ratified it by building a thriving ecosystem. Apple's reviewers are the Justice Department. But who is the Supreme Court? How does this congress amend its constitution?

The address book privacy problems brought to light by Path provide an instructive example. Path, along with many other apps, exploited a weakness in App Store rules, and it infringed upon the rights of the people. One representative, Matt Gemmell, engaged another, Path's Dave Morin, in an open debate about the constitutionality of the practice.

Path's decision to delete the data and put in a dialog box for permission shows the republic at work. But the real story is that this constitutional convention about address book privacy has led Apple to amend the rules in the upcoming iOS 5.1 update. It will now provide a dialog box for address book access at the system level.

The Supreme Court, if you will, is the marketplace. If customers, investors and regulators won't tolerate an Apple policy, the constitution can be amended.

Threats To The Republic

It would be naïve to believe that a republic can function without corruption. The bylaws of Apple's congress are more strict than the tenuous agreements of the Android confederacy, but its app review process is still rife with abuse. The plague of low-quality scam apps could break users' trust in their government, and the republic could be lost.

But Phill Ryu, a newly elected representative behind the new hit iPhone app Clear, made an eloquent speech on the floor foretelling a troubling future if Apple does not address this problem.

Apple users and developers share a nerdy devotion to user experience, the highest ideal of Apple itself. With developers like Ryu keeping Apple's shortcomings in the spotlight, it's hard to believe that Apple would not act to solve this problem.

As Apple moves toward a more unified ecosystem across iOS and OS X, its executive orders will be bold. Its sandboxing and its challenges to the notion of the file system worry some citizens and developers. But this is how sausage gets made. There have been dark times in Apple's republic, and they may come again. But as long as their nerdly representatives have a say, Apple nerds will be safe to practice their religion.

Top Image: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

iPad "cleaning" screenshot via Marco.org via someone on Twitter Marco couldn't remember