Innovation or Chaos? Is There Such a Thing as too Many Apps?

Last Updated Oct 18, 2010 1:29 PM EDT

Now that the first few waves of Android phones have hit the market and Microsoft has released Windows Phone 7, Apple's dominance of the smartphone market is surely over.

At least that's what many pundits are saying, noting that Apple's semi-closed architecture, by requiring developers to submit their apps to Apple for approval, puts a lid on innovation and user choice. At the end of the day, the argument proceeds, developers will prefer the freedom offered by Google's Android platform, and users will prefer the variety of applications. Apple mobile devices will be pushed to irrelevance, just as Windows once kept the Mac at the margin of personal computer market share.

Or maybe not. Choice, it turns out, isn't always the best thing for technology users. Take the online dating service eHarmony, which restricts the number of potential partners its users can review. With fewer applicants to choose from, users have to dig deeper into factors beyond just physical appearance, a process that in the end yields richer results, eHarmony believes. And in the recent working paper When Does a Platform Create Value by Limiting Choice, Harvard Business School professors Ramon Casadesus-Masanell and Hanna Halaburda argue that limiting the number of apps on a platform actually benefits certain types of users.

Andy McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management, says the argument that Apple's "gatekeeper" approach is somehow anti-innovation and will ultimately turn off consumers is ridiculous.

"When I look at graphs of Apple application downloads over time, I don't see any such evidence; they remain on an exponential upward trajectory, despite large and growing sales of Android devices," McAfee writes in a recent post, In Praise of Closed Systems, on HBR.org. "And a recent Nielsen study found that Apple users download about twice as many apps as Android owners, and are more willing to pay for them. Nielsen found that 'users' primary concerns are convenience and security.' When this is the case, some light gatekeeping is welcomed, not decried."
My take is that there is plenty of room in the technology world for both approaches. I, like McAfee, find the idea that Apple's semi-closed approach will bring about the end of Web-centered innovation a bit of hyperbole. What do you think?

(Photo by Flickr user Mr. T in DC, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.