The Build


Which Side Are You On?

8 August 2009

I have multiple reactions when I read that extremely talented Macintosh developers are boycotting the iPhone App Store.

First, I agree completely with the essential issues. The rejection and approval process is not one that inspires the least bit of confidence, especially for those developers who might write exactly the kind of high-investment, sophisticated application that is exactly (a) the kind of application that makes the iPhone the leader, and (b) is likely to run afoul of an expansive or pedantic interpretation of one of the “rules.” (I put the term in quotes because the rules, as applied, are simply too vague to be considered such.)

As an analogy, suppose Apple told Adobe that it could not ship Photoshop for Macintosh OS X because it duplicates the functionality of Preview. That’s what they did with Google Voice. I agree that this particular scenario is unlikely, while observing that code signing for Mac OS X is going to be mandatory at some point in the future.

When I was at Apple during the early 1990s, the company culture was still one of absolute self-assurance and arrogance, even though those were the wilderness years. I can only imagine what it is like there now. One of the things that struck me about Phil Schiller’s response regarding the Ninjawords situation was that Apple responded, not in a case where they were clearly, undeniably wrong to reject an application, but in one where they felt they were clearly, undeniable right, and were being treated unfairly by that portrayal. It is a mark of how extremely arrogant Apple appears (and is) right now that Schiller can say, in effect, “No, you have it all wrong, we were correct and the developer is wrong, we did everything exactly right and have no case to answer,” and it is considered an step forward in good communication.

Let’s consider Schiller’s closing:

Apple’s goals remain aligned with customers and developers—to create an innovative applications platform on the iPhone and iPod touch and to assist many developers in making as much great software as possible for the iPhone App Store. While we may not always be perfect in our execution of that goal, our efforts are always made with the best intentions, and if we err we intend to learn and quickly improve.

Gruber considers this statement as the “first proof I’ve seen that Apple’s leadership is trying to make the course correction that many of us see as necessary for the long-term success of the platform.” I think he’s being far too generous. Schiller’s statement contains absolutely nothing concrete. Of course they’re not perfect, and one would hope that “if they err” they would do something about it. Those are platitudes, not steps.

The only rational conclusion is: What you see now in the App Store is what you are going to get, absent the FCC or FTC slapping Apple around (and please do not hold your breath for anything substantive in that regard).

Second, I doubt that this is enough for me to stop developing for the iPhone. (The easy answer is “no,” because I have signed agreements to deliver iPhone applications, but what about my own spec work?) The reality is that if you are developing for a mobile, you develop for the iPhone and then worry about any other platform. (Microsoft has pretty much admitted this themselves.) It’s an impossibly large market and pile of money, and it is very difficult to consider walking away from it.

Third, we are watching an important shift happening in the software industry. There is a class of developer, console game developers, who must be regarding this with considerable amusement, since they’ve always developed in a walled garden with constant supervision from the platform developer. Desktop developers aren’t used to this. The only kind of retribution we’ve ever been given was the occasional breaking of a private API in the OS (and even that was often treated as a major betrayal on the OS vendor’s part).

From the point of view of desktop developers, the open development model is a natural law. From the point of view of the platform owners, it is a historical accident, like the lack of DRM on CDs, that they wish they could go back in time and fix. Anyone who thinks that Steve Jobs is not irritated that Adobe can sell Creative Suite Design Premium for $1,800 without paying Apple a penny does not understand Steve Jobs.

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