Apple used to carefully curate its App store, helping developers gain visibility and customers find what they needed.
These days, ads have become intrusive and knock-off apps are cluttering up the user experience.
In prioritizing revenue over serving its customers, Apple is becoming the very thing it used to mock.
The App store is, sadly, no longer the jewel of Apple's ecosystem. These days, it seems to be more about maximizing Apple's revenue than serving customers or helping developers flourish.
It hasn't always been this way. Ask just about any Apple executive what makes Apple special and the answer will almost always be Apple's ecosystem - the company's (formerly) unique position of creating both the hardware and the software with tight integration. One of the lessons Apple learned from the Mac in the 90s is that the best hardware and software doesn't matter all that much without apps.
That used to mean that developers - the people who make those apps - were the most important part of any platform. (Remember former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's famously sweaty chant: "Developers! Developers! Developers!" )
Applications are what led users to a particular hardware platform and kept them there.
Thus, the App store was born to give iPhone's beautiful hardware and elegant operating system thousands of apps, created by programmers running their own app businesses. Apple carefully curated the apps it gave prominent display, helping the best developers gain visibility and helping users find the best choice for their needs - with Apple taking a modest 30% of all sales for their efforts maintaining the store.
Now, after 15 years of iPhones, I find the App store to be an imitation of its former self.
The first issue I have is with ads that are becoming more and more intrusive. I don't mind ads in general, but the way Apple is using them in the App store has become really annoying. For example, when I'm searching for an app, I'm bombarded with ads for other apps, and sometimes even for products that are not related to what I am looking for.
The second issue I have is with apps just taking up space. The App store hosts all manner of apps that, in my opinion, push junk. I think an egregious recent example was when gambling apps appeared in the "you might also like" section when some people searched for gambling addiction recovery apps. Apple paused those ads last month after a developer outcry went went viral, the Verge reported.
But I remember when Apple founder Steve Jobs boasted that the lack of ads was part of Apple's ethos. "No ads. We build products that we want for ourselves, too, and we just don't want ads," Jobs said back in 2011.
While Apple does have App store guidelines that say it will reject copycat apps, developers also often complain about knock-offs of their well-known, original apps that bubble to the surface via ads, such as those that mimic popular games.
In October, a game developer tweeted about their experiences with lookalike apps, and after that tweet went viral Apple suspended the app the developer pointed out. Apple also settled a lawsuit in September from a keyboard app developer, as AppleInsider reported. The developer had gone to great lengths to try to show how copycat apps slipped through Apple's app review system.
This is an ongoing frustration for legit developers who now have to pay in order to make sure their stuff isn't buried beneath other stuff - including copycat apps - that Apple ads expose to users.
Look, as a holder of Apple stock, I appreciate that Apple, driven by the ever-hungry demands of Wall Street, is using ads to increase revenue. Apple is a for-profit enterprise, after all. But as a longtime Apple customer, what I mourn are the days where the need for revenue didn't trump the need to serve customers.
Remember back in 2010 when Apple founder Steve Jobs barred all fart apps because they offered no value to users and demeaned the ecosystem? "If it sounds like we're control freaks, well, maybe it's because we're so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products," Jobs said.
It's not just the App store that's focused on revenue over users
Look at any of Apple's new devices: For the most part, they're kind of boring. An iPhone 14 looks a lot like an iPhone 13, which in turn looks a lot like iPhone 12. Whatever new features that exist are pushed only to the "Pro" classes of devices, which also carry the highest price tags and the highest profit margins.
In October, as the world braced for a recession, Apple hiked prices on some of its most popular services such as Apple TV+ and Apple Music. There's an Apple tax on everything coming from Cupertino, whether it's price increases, only the most expensive devices getting the latest features, or the App store, which looks for revenue anywhere it can find it.
The real problem for Apple is that Apple is no longer the only game in town for users. Want to see hardware innovation? Look no further than a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 that folds from tablet to smartphone. Want to see tight integration of hardware/software/services? Look at the Pixel 7, Pixel Watch, and Pixel Buds Pro. You'll also see the latest innovations not just on a Pixel 7 Pro but on a modestly priced Pixel 7. You'll also find apps that were exclusive to Apple now available to Android users as well.
The biggest challenge that these alternate platforms face isn't facing off against Apple's technology. It's facing off against Apple's juggernaut marketing machine.
But the irony is that Apple is becoming the very thing it used to mock going back to the Apple vs. IBM days. Or as Mel Brooks so elegantly stated "We mock the things we are to be."
Michael Gartenberg is a former senior marketing executive at Apple and has covered the company for more than two decades at Gartner, Jupiter Research, and Altimeter Group. He can be reached on Twitter at @Gartenberg.
The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Disclosure: The author owns Apple stock.