Does ATT wreck the prospect of alternative app stores?


One nearly-universal complaint about the iOS App Store: as a landing page, it’s barely customizable, and it lacks the opportunities for optimization that exist on the web. This is why the practice of App Store Optimization (ASO) is mostly a function of curating search keywords and running limited experiments with icons and screenshots through third-party services that host “fake” storefronts. Apple offers a very limited suite of tools to developers for use in optimizing their App Store pages for conversion (although Apple is introducing A/B testing functionality this year — finally).

Further, the App Store isn’t a meaningful source of growth for most scaled apps. App Store featuring is helpful, and organic traffic delivered through App Store discovery certainly contributes value, but neither of these opportunities is universally dependable or sturdy enough, broadly, to serve as the foundation of a (large) business. Yes, exceptions exist — most of them are legacy apps with strong nostalgia brand value — but the dominant growth strategy for scaling an app is through performance marketing.

I argue in this essay and in this interview that Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) privacy framework restores the App Store’s primacy in terms of app distribution on iOS by degrading the effectiveness of direct response advertising. If app developers are less able to reach relevant users through direct response ads — especially on Facebook — then they become more dependent on the App Store for distribution. This is obviously an outcome that is attractive to Apple: Apple is better able to dictate which apps become popular on iOS, and its command of distribution staves off the eventual disintermediation of content from hardware-specific platforms.

Given the recent spate of regulatory intervention into App Store policy, it's entirely plausible that Apple's App Tracking Transparency (ATT) privacy framework was developed in recognition that 3rd party app stores would be forced onto iOS eventually (1/X)

ATT also accomplishes something else: it deflates the appeal of third-party, alternative app stores on iOS should Apple ever be compelled to allow them. If the App Store dominates discovery on mobile once again because direct response advertising becomes ineffective or economically non-viable, then any alternative app store would face a much higher barrier to adoption. Developers would advertise their apps on these alternative app stores in exactly the same way as they advertise their App Store-hosted apps. If a developer can’t profitably advertise an app hosted on the App Store, which is native to the device and into which the user has already input their credit card information, is it realistic that they can profitably advertise their app on an alternative app store?

Given the speed with which Apple’s exclusive control over iOS payments seems to be dissipating through both lawsuit settlements and regulatory incursion, it seems plausible that an additional ambition of Apple’s in launching ATT this year was to undermine the ability of any future alternative app store from gaining traction. Apple must have recognized the eventuality of alternative app stores on its platform for years — if the company can re-assert the App Store as the center of gravity for discovery on iOS, wrestling that critical function away from advertising networks, then the existence of alternative app stores isn’t a threat.