App Economies: When Economic Blockades Create New Industries

Posted by Sam Kellogg — MA candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU

In my last blog post I addressed some of the nuances and contradictions of Internet adoption for contemporary Cuban sociality and economics, and discussed how these nuances bear on the ways we think about development. In this post, I’d like to unpack some of the unexpected consequences of the US economic blockade against Cuba, and explain how massive demand has created a unique new local industry around the installing and updating of apps.

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Wifi-enabled public parks are sites of shared virtuality.

One of the more curious, and frustrating, consequences of the US economic embargo for Internet users in the island is that the Apple App Store and Google Play Store become unusable. Since Apple and Google are US companies, they’d be breaking the law if they did business with Cuba without explicit permission. To avoid this, these companies have implemented safeguards: if you try to download an app from the Apple App Store in Cuba, Apple’s servers will detect your location and throw an error code (1009—there are only a handful of places in the world you’ll see this error code). If Apple were a Canadian company you’d be able to download apps in Cuba as normal, but Apple must follow US government regulations, making it that much more difficult for Cubans to use the limited access available to them.

Of course, there are always routes around these kinds of restrictions, passageways available to circumnavigate a barrier. The easiest way to get around Apple’s error code is to install and use a VPN service to trick Apple’s servers into thinking you are in another country: there are a wide variety of free and commercial VPN services available; they are relatively easy to use and work well (read this if you want to learn how to choose and use one). If you don’t already have a VPN app on your phone when you enter Cuba, however, (and how would you if you’re Cuban), you’re once again in trouble: the only way to install apps on an iPhone is through the App Store, and that goes for VPN services as well as games or dating apps.

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Connecting to public wifi using a scratch-off card.

After some experimenting and googling I was eventually able to circumnavigate this limitation through a series of convoluted steps. I downloaded a free VPN program onto my laptop (an option many Cubans don’t have—as in much of the developing world, smartphones are much more common than laptops) and used it to route my traffic through another country. From there, I downloaded an iPhone VPN app into iTunes, and then connected my phone to my laptop to sync it: the app was loaded onto my iPhone a few minutes later. From then on, I was able to turn on the VPN and update or download apps directly through the app store without getting any kind of error code: after all, it appeared my traffic was coming from the United States.

This is all a bit much, though, even with a laptop, and it is comparatively expensive: downloading is slow in Cuba, and slower still through a VPN. Luckily for Cuban smartphone users, though, an entire support industry has cropped up in Havana to do the dirty work for you: I visited at least ten cell phone shops there that specialized not only in physical repairs (screen changes, etc…) but also offered direct app sales in the shop: a new kind of retail. For a dollar, you can get Facebook or Zapya installed on your phone using their in-house VPN, or else someone will be happy to ‘jailbrake’ your phone to load apps directly onto it from there database. Stop by, pay a few dollars, and walk away with your new apps. These kinds of shops are doing well, and have cropped up wherever there is demand (meaning wherever there is wifi) and sufficient capital to get them going. These kinds of cell phone shops are almost as common as cafeterias in certain zones of Havana: an entire retail app sector emerging as a result of U.S. government sanctions and Cuban ingenuity.

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Habanacell and La Nube, small private cellphone service and repair shops.

One final note on consumption patterns: while Apple is often seen as a kind of luxury brand in Cuba, or as a kind of status symbol (Apple logo bumper-stickers plaster car windows, and I once saw a man sporting an Apple logo tattoo on his forearm), functionally and practically, Android is king. Android’s ecosystem is understood to be more ‘open’ and ‘flexible’ than Apple’s, and there are far more inexpensive Android phones on the market at the moment. Android phones are easier to use as external hard drives (for data), and can be tweaked with greater ease: a necessity for getting around barriers of all kinds. Unless Apple radically changes directions and opens up its walled garden approach, or unless the economic blockade is lifted, it is likely that Android will remain dominant in Cuba for the foreseeable future.

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Apple devices might be relatively rare, but the Apple logo is everywhere, from stickers to street art.

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