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Opinion: Apple's move to block app incentivisation hands Android the initiative

Opinion: Apple's move to block app incentivisation hands Android the initiative
The idea that iOS offers companies a more stable environment compared to the uncontrolled nature of Android is fast unravelling.

In its natural state, it's not hard to understand why the industry has gravitated towards Apple's platform since the launch of the App Store.

Though regulation has always been an issue, iOS has largely avoided the cases of fragmentation that have dogged Android, and by offering a unified service, Apple has been able to take the lead when it comes to enabling companies to make money as well as introducing new monetisation features such as in-app purchases.

But the level of control Apple has over all aspects of its ecosystem also means it's able to change the rules for thousands of businesses in a moment's notice, without any consultation. 

Hence the news that Apple is blocking app incentivisation models – which enable games to gain exposure in the ever-expanding freemium market on iOS – is just the latest in a long line of unexpected shifts.

No Flash in the pan

Apple's clamp down on games utilising Flash in their development back in April 2010 made significant waves, but wasn't altogether surprising, given the two companies' chequered history in recent years.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs had previously claimed his company's reluctance to add support for Adobe's platform across the board was due to concerns regarding Flash's performance on Apple devices.

Damningly, Jobs described Flash as a hangover from a development age now long consigned to history. The end result was a change to the iOS developer agreement, which temporarily led to games developed using the language being blocked from sale.

In response, Adobe upped its efforts on Android – a run of support that has most recently resulted in Flash Player 10.2 rolling out on Honeycomb in March.

And, in essence, shifting focus to Android is often the only thing businesses bedded in iOS can do when Apple shifts the goalposts.

Cause for concern

Banning app incentivisation is Apple's biggest shift in policy yet however. 

Still, following on from a tweak to the chart algorithms the firm employs for iTunes, it would be unfair to suggest that there isn't a valid reason behind the change in Apple's position.

Incentivisation rewards players with virtual currency if they download and/or play other games advertised in-app. While it acts as an important promotional tool for freemium releases in an increasingly competitive market, it also has a direct bearing on a game's position in the App Store rankings.

Apple is concerned that positions at the top of the charts can, essentially, now be bought. This makes a mockery of the rankings, which are intended to reflect popularity rather than marketing spend.

However, it appears the first anyone knew of Apple's intentions to block the model were when updates to live games that use the model resulted in them being pulled from the App Store.

The networks for whom app incentivisation is a vital part of their business – Tapjoy, Flurry, et al – had not been contacted or warned.

Power and responsibility

The bottomline is Apple has built a platform everyone wants a piece of. Its family of products has created a complex ecosystem of developers and publishers, aggregators, game networks, monetisation tools, analytics and advertising specialists - almost any form of mobile business solution you can think of.

But the more frequently Apple changes the rules, the more likely they are to look around for alternatives. 

The untethered nature of Android, though unpredictable and loose in some respects, boasts one crucial factor in comparison: Google's inability to dominate the platform.

Even when rules are imposed on firms operating within the Android ecosystem, there's are always other routes available to consumers via third party marketplaces.

Ironically then, the incoherent nature of Android actually allows businesses to run with a level of consistency not matched on iOS as they can define their own practices without fear they could be banned.  

Whether the latest chapter in the story of Apple's ever-tightening grip on iOS will result in a significant switch is hard to judge. To be honest, Android is already picking up so much momentum, it would be hard to notice additional acceleration. 

It's a chink of light for Nokia and Microsoft to seriously consider too as they attempt to play catch-up on Apple and Google.

Certainly, companies such as Flurry and Tapjoy, already active on Android are likely to be thinking about where their future investments will be spent, while everyone else operating on iOS is likely to feel a little more nervous than they were yesterday. 

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

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