#Techquity: How iPhone Apps Are Increasing Inequity

I love apps. I have apps that keep me informed, help me communicate more effectively with more people, increase my productivity, and suck away my time and productivity. I have apps that help me create and drive my inquiry and wonder. I think some of my apps are powerful enough to change the world.

In this last category, the audacious one, I’m really excited about two new apps, Periscope and StoryCorps. Periscope, made by Twitter, is a live streaming tool with social integration. It offers anyone with an iPhone the ability to transform themselves into producers who broadcast live content on the Internet to audience members who in turn are able to interact with the producer in real time. StoryCorps is an app created by a project of the same name that records people interviewing each other and archives these interviews for the Library of Congress. (You may have heard StoryCorps on NPR’s Morning Edition, where it plays each Friday morning.) Involvement with the StoryCorps project previously required getting into their official soundbooth. The StoryCorps app allows anyone to record an interview and join in creating “an archive of the wisdom of humanity.” Big stuff for iPhone users!

iOS app developers bringing us products like these are making the world a better place. And they’re also contributing to the problem of inequity. They do this every time they debut their amazingness exclusively on Apple devices.

In his piece What Kids Are Learning Online, Innovation Hub’s Marc Sollinger quotes UC-Irvine Cultural Anthropologist Mimi Ito:

“The sad fact is that we know historically, that when you provide fancier technology, it actually increases inequity.” Through her research, Ito has found that new technology has the tendency to give students who are already highly educated and come from wealthier backgrounds “superpowers.” It separates people into two groups: those who can easily access new technology and new ways of learning, and those who can’t.”

In the case of apps exclusively released on iOS, those who can’t are historically underserved racial and socioeconomic populations. According to data from Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, those with household incomes greater than $75,000/yr were the only group reporting higher smartphone ownership of iPhones than Android devices (40% vs. 31%). In stark contrast, iPhone ownership is quite low among Blacks (16%), Hispanics (26%) and households with lower household income (13% for those less than $30,000/yr and 23% for $30,000-$49,999/yr).

In fairness to app developers, there are compelling reasons to focus first on iOS. The biggest is complexity cost: iOS developers only need to test their product on a handful of different iPhone, iPod and iPad devices whereas developing for Android means creating a product that will run nicely on over 10,000 different devices with variance in screen size, processors and even versions of the Android operating system. In short, it is more expensive to develop for Android.

So, it’s easier to develop first for iOS. The bugs that users report and the fixes developers need to push out span far fewer products, making it cheaper to release and refine.

But, the question for developers should still be asked: Is cost your only concern?

This question is especially important for developers of apps that might be used in educational settings. While most apps are eventually made available for Android, the head start given to iOS users creates an access gap that is difficult to close. It inherently gifts the “superpowers” described by Mimi Ito to iOS user groups weeks, months or more before Android users gain access. (Instagram, for example, launched on iOS 18 months ahead of Android.)

Inequity is a global concern and for businesses in the business of making money, increasing equity may not be part of the business model. But it is a choice and it should be a conscious choice. In the case of app development, releasing on iOS ahead of Android is choosing to increase inequity in our world, so even apps that aspire to change the world may not be doing so entirely for the better.

Notes and Credits:

  • StoryCorps initially launched exclusively on iOS and succeeded in releasing an Android app several days later (before I had completed this post).
  • At the time of this posting, Twitter has not yet released an Android version of Periscope but according to the company blog, it’s coming: “Soon. We’re working on it.”
  • The Pew Research Data is from May, 2013. When I find more recent data (feel free point me in the right direction!) I will update this post.
  • Although Whites and high income populations report higher iPhone ownership than other groups, they are also impacted by this phenomenon.
  • Globally, the difference in smartphone ownership is even greater than in the U.S. as Android OS has nearly 80% market share compared to less than 20% for iOS. http://www.businessinsider.com/iphone-v-android-market-share-2014-5
  • This 2013 piece in The Guardian was helpful in learning about the factors facing developers in tackling an app for iOS vs. Android.
  • I found the Pew Research Center’s data on this post by Ayaz Nanji.
  • The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, April 17-May 19, 2013 Tracking Survey is published here.

Update (June 25, 2015): Medium has now released an Android app.

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