As the app world gets more and more competitive, we are seeing a lot of innovation and unique ideas. Often these ideas coalesce into so-called disruptive apps which challenge the business models of established industries. Applications like AirBnB and the numerous carpooling apps are examples of this kind of useful disruptive innovation.
However, it seems more and more that ideas-starved tech developers are moving into areas that just don't need to be disrupted. And indeed is it is this dynamic that has given rise to the so-called ‘asshole app’: an application which works to benefit a select group of users, while at the same time making life difficult for everybody else. In some cases this apps simply serve to annoy, while in other more extreme cases they function in the grey areas of the law to effectively rob people of their livelihoods.
So what are some examples?
One such ‘asshole app’ is Reservation Hop, an app which theoretically allows users to connect with people who have unwanted restaurant reservations, and facilitate a transaction in which the ownership of this reservation is switched for a nominal fee. The problem with this app, is that it creates a marketplace for restaurant reservations, and an environment where users have an incentive to make as many reservations as possible, and then sell them on Reservation Hop. This has two negative side effects, firstly, if they fill these reservations, then regular restaurant-goers would be forever locked out from a table, and secondly, if they fail to sell these reservations, then the restaurant stands to lose large amounts of potential business.
Another example is the app Monkey Parking. This app allows a user to sell their public parking space to the highest bidder, in order to theoretically make it easier for the other party to locate a carpark in a timely manner. However, once again, this app is creating the incentive for users to go out early in the day, take all of the parking spaces and then sell them at a profit. Not only is this unethically co-opting public infrasture for a profit, it is also possibly illegal, with several legal battles being fought in US courts against the app.
With these sorts of apps considered, the question becomes, where do developers draw the line? If your app is disruptive enough all sorts of people are going to complain - take Uber for example - however this is not enough to say that this is a bad or ‘asshole app’. Instead, developers should look at the fundamental fairness of the app. Should it create conditions where it will likely be abused for middle-party profits and hurt everyday people, then it is probably a bad idea. However, should the app only negatively affect a tired, un-innovative and/or rent-seeking industry, by all rights go ahead and disrupt.
In addition, as these apps are created, and challenged in court, the line between what is and isn’t legally acceptable should become more defined. We can only hope that as new technology appears on the scene, broad but nonetheless fair guidelines can be created to govern apps into the future.
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