Will an open platform kill the app economy?

With the impending launch of Firefox OS, Tizen and Ubuntu Phone, some have predicted that the days are numbered for the dominance of the closed app platforms from Apple and Google.

But a few questions remain unanswered: will this shift happen, and is this a good thing?

Firstly, any new entrants into the smartphone operating system market will have some work to do to chip away at the current duopoly. The key is whether smartphone manufacturers decide to adopt these new open operating systems for their new models, or at least give their customers choice.

But it is difficult to see why many would decide to shift away from Android, which is now a fairly mature operating system with a healthy app ecosystem. There’s nothing in it for manufacturers, as Android is as free and open source as the newcomers. And there’s little in it for consumers: whatever improvements the operating systems could offer are surely outweighed by the paltry offering of apps (at least initially – see the nightmare Windows are having right now).

The open revolution will take a long time, if it happens at all. Just look at the desktop operating system or browser markets, where Windows, OS X, IE and Safari still loom large. For all the successes the open source movement can rightly point to, closed platforms still dominate in a market where consumers lack knowledge, sticking to defaults and what they know.

And now, with connected everything, some consumers are quite happy to stay within a closed environment if everything ‘just works’. Take me: I’m a huge advocate of open standards but I have quite happily intertwined myself in the closed world of Apple products, as have many others who would otherwise balk at closed platforms.

Perhaps the future is, as many are claiming, some kind of platform-neutral apps based on HTML5 and other technologies. But for that to truly work, the big beasts need to start working together to agree common standards (a la W3C). If they fail to do this – and it very likely that they will, given their interests in perpetuating their own closed markets and profit shares - then the future looks bleak indeed. We will either end up with huge platform compatibility issues across a fragmented market (think of browser incompatibility mixed with the arguments around net neutrality and multiply it), or the current market failures will become more severe, resulting in an effective monopoly situation.

Putting aside whether this shift will actually happen, however, is this actually a good thing?

On the one hand, yes – absolutely. Open standards, a truly free market, an end to inconsistencies and incompatibilities and better choice for consumers.

But whither the burgeoning app economy? Much heralded in recent times, the impact of the concept of ‘apps’ and ‘app stores’ has made a significant impact on the tech economy. Crucially, it has monetised things which many previous though un-monetisable in a web culture that had become accustomed to ‘free’ as the norm. Whilst not without its problems, the app economy has it has created a great deal of growth, jobs and innovation.

So what bearing will this impending (albeit unlikely) open revolution have on this fledgling industry?

Open standards would not necessarily herald the end of customers paying for apps – iTunes Store and Spotify demonstrate that customers are willing to pay for services done well, even if they could get it elsewhere (but without the joy or convenience) for free. But open standards would chip away at the walled app gardens of Apple and Google, and could give consumers an open, free alternative whether legitimately or through increased piracy. This could undermine that magical quantity that enabled apps to charge where website were unable to.

Additionally, platform neutrality would reduce redundancy and inefficiency within the app economy – heavens knows how many hours are wasted on platform porting and cross platform testing. Whether those jobs get reallocated to other, more productive tasks, or whether they are simply lost remains to be seen.

Alternatively, a truly open market in apps could be a catalyst for further growth, with new entrants chipping away at the dominance of the big two.

Whether or not any of this happens remains to be seen. Apps may ultimately be a passing trend. But nonetheless, the next few years will be an interesting test case for the world of open standards and technology markets.