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«“Locating digital production: How platforms shape participation in the global app economy” Bryan Pon (bryan Caribou Digital ...»

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For AAG 2015 workshop on Geographies of Production in Digital Economies of LowIncome Countries

“Locating digital production: How platforms shape participation in

the global app economy”

Bryan Pon (bryan@cariboudigital.net)

Caribou Digital

The app economy continues to grow in scale and economic value, with millions of app

developers and estimated revenues of $87 billion in 2014.1 Despite the potential for accessible

economic opportunities for producers—digital goods such as apps can be produced (and consumed) almost anywhere, and the online marketplaces or “app stores” provide convenient distribution options for reaching consumers worldwide—participation in the formal app economy is still highly skewed, with most of the value creation and value capture occurring in the industrialized countries. While much of this unevenness simply reflects (and reinforces) the evolution of knowledge-intensive technology development and infrastructure, it is also the result of platform strategies by the two major platform firms—both of whom are based in Silicon Valley —whose governance policies shape participation and value capture. Using primary data on the location of 2,688 commercially successful app developers worldwide, this paper maps participation and contextualizes it within this new industry structure. The resulting analysis highlights three key ways in which these technologically space-less platforms are anchored in places and geographies. First, the location of successful developers shows that production is highly concentrated in the United States and East Asia, with signs of agglomeration in four major metropolitan areas. Second, the degree of participation is in some cases established at the country level, requiring agreement between nation-states and platform owners, and can result in de facto exclusion for those populations. And third, the nationalized structure of the app stores offers an advantage to local producers in smaller markets, but is insufficient to outweigh the winner-take-all dynamics and platform strategies that are increasingly favoring the larger and better-resourced developers.


This paper is largely based on a work in progress with Martin Kenney, University of California, Davis, and has benefitted significantly from input from Jonathan Donner, Caribou Digital.

ACT/App Association, “State of the App Economy 2014” Introduction The shift to mobile-based internet and computing is happening quickly, and in multiple forms.2 There are now about 2 billion smartphones in use, more than the installed base of PCs.3 By 2020, the number of smartphone connections is expected to grow to 6 billion, and 4 out of 5 of those will be in the developing world.4 Much of the value of smartphones is based on their ability to access the internet and run packaged software “apps” that provide a wide range of utility and entertainment services. Withbillions of new users gaining access to these devices, the “app economy”—characterized as the buying and selling of apps through virtual “app stores”—has become an increasingly visible and financially important sector of the global economy, with revenues of approximately $87 billion in 2014.5 This new market may offer improved economic opportunities to a range of digital producers. For example, compared to the PC software industry, mobile app development has lower barriers to entry in terms of lower licensing costs, more accessible programming languages, and more powerful developer tools that facilitate programming.6 Perhaps more important, however, is that apps are produced, distributed, and consumed entirely digitally; a producer of apps can build her product almost anywhere, sell to a consumer located almost anywhere, and receive financial payment, all through the transmission of bytes of data over the internet and telecommunications networks. The result is an increasingly complex, global network of “digital flows” as apps, content, and finance are uploaded and downloaded in bi-directional, one-tomany and many-to-one flows of digital data.7 Despite the technologically frictionless, borderless nature of the digital flows, the app economy is not an unregulated market. The vast majority of these flows of data and money are channeled through proprietary app stores, which are owned and managed by the major smartphone platform firms. These firms—especially Google and Apple, whose operating systems have captured 80% and 16% of the global market, respectively—have created market structures and processes that determine how producers and end-users can participate and capture value within the platform ecosystem. These market structures enable some producers, for example, to overcome their own marginalized geography by providing access to lucrative national markets and consumers a continent away; fulfilling in some ways the oft-cited promise of internet Donner, Jonathan. After Access: Inclusion, Development, and a More Mobile Internet. Cambridge, Mass., USA: The MIT Press, 2015.

Benedict Evans (2015) “Where do mobile numbers come from?” http://ben-evans.com/ benedictevans/2015/1/25/mobile-numbers-and-the-getting-of-them Note that here “connections” refers to unique SIM cards used with a smartphone device; not unique subscribers. Source: GSMA, “Smartphone forecasts and assumptions, 2007-2020” ACT/App Association, “State of the App Economy 2014” Holzer, A., & Ondrus, J. (2011). Mobile application market: A developer’s perspective. Telematics and Informatics, 28(1), 22–31.

Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1). Wiley.com.

technologies to level the playing field through disintermediation and shrinking of distance.8 Yet the same structures in other instances seem to reinforce disparities, for example by making it difficult for producers in some low-income countries to receive payments through the app store.9 This paper develops a preliminary spatial analysis of participation and value capture within the app economy, using the location of production to illustrate how a platform-mediated digital network can both transcend and reinforce the geography of physical place. In the next section, I summarize relevant research that has sought to understand how advancements in ICTs impact the geography of economic activity. I next introduce an overview of the platform literature, and contextualize it within the smartphone app markets as virtual marketplaces. The methodology and analysis sections describe the data on the location of commercially successful app developers. Finally, I explore the data and its implications in greater detail in the discussion.

Geography of production Understanding the factors shaping the location of production is a key research interest in economic geography. The rapidly globalizing economy, along with continued advancements in information and communications technology (ICT) and knowledge-based work, have only increased interest and urgency in this area.10 Previous research on how ICTs, and the internet specifically, are changing the geographical organization of production has been primarily focused on digitally enabled processes or business models, such as e-commerce, off-shoring, or telework.11 Yet there has been relatively little empirical work that explores the geography of production and consumption when the goods themselves are digital.

The distinction is important, as wholly digital goods have different economic properties, including a marginal cost that approaches zero (making digital copies, whether 10 or 10,000, is essentially costless and exhibits no degradation) and the trait of non-rivalry, meaning they can be “consumed” by multiple people without affecting the good.12 Just as importantly, the cost of transporting digital goods over telecommunications networks is also low and trending toward Graham, M. (2008). Warped geographies of development: The Internet and theories of economic development. Geography Compass, 2(3), 771–789.

Wagner, S., & Fernandez-Ardevol, M. (2015). Local content production and the political economy of the mobile app industries in Argentina and Bolivia. New Media & Society.

Malmberg, A., & Maskell, P. (2002). The elusive concept of localization economies: towards a knowledge-based theory of spatial clustering. Environment and Planning A, 34, 429–450.

For example, Leamer, E., & Storper, M. (2001). The economic geography of the internet age (Vol. 3).

Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w8450; Malecki, E. J., & Moriset, B. (2007). The digital economy: Business organization, production processes and regional developments. Routledge.

Shapiro, C., & Varian, H. (1999). Information rules: A strategic guide to the network economy.

Academy of Management Review. Harvard Business Press.

zero.13 These characteristics enable consumption to occur simultaneously and in multiple places around the world, leading to multi-scalar and multi-spatial flows of virtual trade.

A compelling question is therefore how the “placeless” nature of digital goods14 affects the location of economic activity. In principle, if the production function is divorced from the benefits of spatial proximity to customers (i.e., reduced shipping costs), there should be more dispersed firm location.15 Yet for industries characterized by high levels of innovation and knowledgebased work—such as app development—close face-to-face contact is critical, and provides a strong countervailing force of agglomeration.16 Importantly, this tension is also dependent on the maturity of the industry: as technologies and processes become established and codified, firms are more likely to pursue vertical disintegration and more specialized divisions of labor.17 Among the empirical studies that locate digital production in space, Matthew Zook18 used domain name registrations as a proxy for location of internet content creation, showing a clustering of domain registrations in the major world cities, and at the national scale. His data showed clear market dominance by the United States followed by Western Europe, with almost no representation by emerging economies.19 The work by Mark Graham20 on Wikipedia entries and Google Maps tags, also showed dramatically fewer contributions from the developing world.

Both of these authors have highlighted the disparities between North-South participation in digital production, and in doing so challenged the discourse of ICT and digital technologies as tools for equalizing access to economic opportunities.

There are undoubtedly large disparities in the relative cost to end-users for data transmission over cellular networks, and for hundreds of millions of users, this cost is not negligible. However, compared to transporting physical goods on ships and trucks, digital goods enjoy huge cost savings, especially for producers; for example, the producer of a physical book who sells 1,000 copies has to pay shipping costs for 1,000 units, while the producer of a digital book who sells 1,000 copies can upload the file to the server once, for minimal cost. In virtually all markets, network costs for bandwidth and data speed show steady declines over time.

Quah, D. (2003). Digital goods and the new economy.

Moriset, B., & Malecki, E. J. (2009). Organization versus space: The paradoxical geographies of the digital economy. Geography Compass, 3(1), 256–274.

Feldman, M. P. (2002). The Internet revolution and the geography of innovation. International Social Science Journal, 54(171), 47–56; Bathelt, H., Malmberg, A., & Maskell, P. (2004). Clusters and knowledge: local buzz, global pipelines and the process of knowledge creation. Progress in Human Geography, 28(1), 31–56.

Mudambi, R. (2008). Location, control and innovation in knowledge-intensive industries. Journal of Economic Geography, 8(July), 699–725.

Zook, M. (2000). The web of production: the economic geography of commercial Internet content production in the United States. Environment and Planning A, 32, 411–426.; Zook, M. (2001). Old hierarchies or new networks of centrality? The global geography of the Internet content market.

American Behavioral Scientist.; Zook, M. (2005). The geography of the internet industry: Venture capital, dot-coms, and local knowledge. Wiley. com.

–  –  –

Graham, M. (2014). Inequitable Distributions in Internet Geographies: The Global South Is Gaining Access, but Lags in Local Content. Innovations, 9(3-4), 3–19.; Graham, M. (2013). The knowledge based economy and digital divisions of labour. Forthcoming, Graham, M, 189–195.

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