Crowdsourcing Mobile Application Development

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


May 25, 2011

Crowdsourcing Mobile Application Development

Here’s a paper called Crowdsourcing and ICT work: A study of Apple and Google mobile phone application developers (PDF). From the abstract:

…developers’ experiences are analysed to illustrate how they cope with increasingly precarious and insecure working conditions and adapt to shifting labour market requirements.

It may seem counter-intuitive to think about Android and iOS apps as crowdsourced development, and if you take unpaid labor to be defining feature of crowdsourcing, then it seems wrong, since obviously mobile app developers get paid. Or some do, anyway - the actual distribution of revenue likely favors a small number of very popular apps.

And that’s where it does bear some resemblance to crowdsourcing: in a traditional business model, Apple or Google would shoulder the costs of figuring out what apps to build to make their devices useful to their customers. This model is dubbed “centralized” and lambasted by some as authoritarian, because it would also mean that only Apple or Google would have control over what gets installed a device.

In the actual model, the contents of the app stores are decentralized and crowdsourced, which supposedly empowers developers to be entrepreneurial, but actually pushes the risks and costs from the corporations on to individuals. Apple has a 500,000 apps in its store, a staggering number that’s hundreds of times larger than if it was forced to invest R&D into producing apps on its own, and it’s able to gain this benefit without the traditional costs of hiring permanent employees, and actually makes money by taking 30% of revenue from app purchases. From the paper:

This emerging business model for mobile applications has entailed a move away from salaried forms of exchange within an internal market to an external market of competing contractors, thus avoiding the incurred costs of the direct employment contract while profiting from the productivity of what is effectively a volunteer workforce.

One other important benefit from the move from employee to self-employed entrepreneur is that individuals in the same profession start to see each other as competitors to be undercut with a lower price, and less as fellow workers with the same fate, who might unionize to fight for their collective interests. This new precariousness of labor is celebrated as a form of empowerment.

By placing responsibility for productivity firmly at the door of employees themselves, capital is able to reap productivity benefits while reducing the costs of monitoring and controlling labour. While new media workers may be celebrated as ‘model entrepreneurs’ (Florida 2002) the reality for many is the disintegration of stable careers and the move towards insecure and discontinuous employment.

Twitter is using a similar model, offering a very extensive API that allows developers access to practically everything that the standard web client does, and encouraging developers to to fill in gaps in Twitter’s product, triggering a flood as thousands of developers rush in to carve out their niche working on new Twitter applications. After a certain point, the winners and losers become clear - it’s mostly losers - and Twitter simply acquires the handful of winners.

Another part of this paper that I like is the section entitled The Economisation of Life which discusses, among other things, the role of fun as a factor that motivates mobile app developers:

The integration of work and play also leads to a weakening of the traditional distinction between work and private life since not only does play invade work, but work invades leisure. One female developer described the process of working with her partner: ‘I don’t think we would have started the company if it wasn’t for my husband. We actually came up with the idea on our honeymoon’.

One sobering point is that, at least in Apple’s case, the situation was hardly masterminded in advance. When the iPhone was initially released, there were no plans to position the device as a platform for independent developers, as Windows Phone had been. The opening of the platform to independent developers was literally demanded by the developers.