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Do App Developers Need A Union?

Just ahead of WWDC, an odd attempt to get a better deal for iOS app developers. It's not clear how this would work, exactly, or if it's even real, but the App Developer Union manifesto raises a good point: app developers have no leverage.

Posted on June 7, 2012, at 4:22 p.m. ET

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On its "Job Creation" page, a cornerstone of its lobbying efforts, Apple boasts of 248,000 registered iOS developers in the US alone, which it says have resulted in about 210,000 "app economy jobs." But apparently some of these jobholders are unhappy with the deal they're getting. And they (or some unknown parties on their behalf) are apparently organizing, in the form of the App Developer Union. (The App Developer Union has not yet returned our request for comment, so for all we know it could be a non-starter or even some creative astroturfing. Something smells odd here! But anyway, see the bottom of the post for more on that.)

You can make a lot of money as an iOS app developer. You can also make very little. But one thing is certain: the iOS App Store is by far the easiest app ecosystem in which to make a living. A report published just today puts the average revenue per active user four times higher on iOS than on Android, and Windows Phone developer revenues are hardly above hobby level. That leaves the App Store as the only prudent choice for many developers; it also gives Apple nearly absolute power over the people that make software for its devices.

The App Developer Union is really more of a petition than anything else. But its demands are clear:

App cloning of every variety is endemic in the App Store, and despite being a violation of Apple's developer guidelines, very hard to stop without taking someone to court. Apple's enforcement has been occasional at best, leaving questionable apps free to claim valuable App Store leaderboard space. And Lodsys, a known patent troll, has been attempting to squeeze settlements out of individual app developers for violating patents with functionality that is very clearly Apple's.

Apple isn't obligated to do anything about these issues, and working in the App Store is quite clearly a privilege, not a right. A real App Store union would also be almost impossible to form — a few Android developers tried something similar last year and got nowhere, and it's hard to imagine any of the big app developers, who are doing quite well, signing onto this. The US doesn't have a strong culture of trade organizations for IT professionals or programmers; the UK does, but the groups are more like fraternities or clubs than the leverage-wielding legal business entities we mean when we use the word "union."

The fact remains, though, that as long as Apple's App Store is the most lucrative marketplace for developers, developers effectively have no choice but to accept whatever terms Apple offers, and to deal with whatever problems Apple neglects to address. App developers probably aren't going to get a union, but they might deserve one.

(As for who's behind this, I haven't been able to find much evidence. It doesn't quite feel organic, and I have a suspicion that it has something to do with Appsterdam legal defense team, formed last year. I'll update if I figure it out.)