At the most recent Apple Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple rolled at a new rule which states:
Apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service will be rejected.
This seemingly simple statement could have a negative impact on the services government agencies provide. This situation is compounded as native app use is up; citizens experience the majority of their digital lives through native mobile apps and not a mobile browser.
A Misguided Approach to SPAM
Apple appears to be trying to crack down on SPAM apps. Apple's App Store is an incredibly lucrative business and it relies heavily on third-party developers, to which Apple has paid over $70 billion to developers in less than 10 years.
With any successful online platform, spammers eventually find their way into the ecosystem attempting to "game" the system. In the context of the App Store, this comes in the form of rip-off apps and apps built solely to force ads or paid subscription services onto users. Presumably the more copy-cat, templated apps an unscrupulous developer can churn out, the more opportunity to rip people off.
It now feels that Apple has over-corrected and is taking a misguided approach. We strongly disagree that white-labeled apps built specifically for local governments are SPAM. And despite a public outcry, Apple isn't commenting.
Cities and counties provide many of the same types of services, but in ways that need to be configured in a specific fashion. For example, one city pushes citizen requests into CRM powered by Microsoft (Dynamics), while another uses Salesforce. Or neighboring counties that both provide pet licenses, use different payment providers and back-office finance systems.
With a platform approach, we can provide a templated app with configurable integration points that can be re-used, and the result is an effective approach with drastically more favorable economics versus a custom-built software approach. It's very unlikely that all but a slim number of municipalities will have the resources and expertise to build their own custom mobile app with integrations into numerous back-office systems.
Impact on Digital Government Services
We believe in a "mobile-first" world where citizens can access all their government services from their smartphones on the go. Most local governments don't have the internal expertise to build cutting-edge applications - and they shouldn't. Application development and the necessary back-end software development is a highly specialized skill. Attempting to tackle this on their own, when existing vendors like us have cost-effective solutions already in place, would be highly inefficient and, one could argue, a misuse of public funds.
Instead, governments typically partner with software platform vendors, allowing them to drive forward today's services, such as reporting a pothole, paying a utility bill, finding parking, and much more, while the vendor can build the underlying technologies at a far less per unit price.
Apple's policy change threatens to undermine this proven go-to-market strategy, and potentially cuts off the growing number of innovations in digital civic technologies. The future of modern civic engagement centers around the smartphone and it's our strong belief that a native solution provides the best approach for local governments to interact with their residents.
Given Apple's recent announcement, we are pressing forward with building custom, branded native apps and deploying those through the App Store. It will take more work, but our belief that a native application is the best approach drives us to make the best of current circumstances. We sincerely hope that Apple will one day allow for developers to manage white-label apps on behalf of its customers.
No matter what Apple decides to do, even if it's nothing, we will continue to press on and provide native mobile apps for local government.