What Apple Needs

So there’s been a lot of talk lately about Apple’s rejection of Podcaster from the App Store. Reaction has been almost universally negative and at least one noted developer has decided to discontinue developing iPhone software. There have been a variety of calls for Apple to at the very least clarify the App Store submission guidelines so developers don’t risk wasting months of development effort only to be rejected by the only available outlet for iPhone software distribution.

This is only the latest in a series of disappointments from the iPhone developer community. A brief timeline:

  • We have an SDK, it’s html and javascript (boo!)
  • OK, just kidding we have a real SDK (yay!)
  • But you’ll only be able to distribute your apps through our store (boo!)
  • But all the tools will be free (yay!)
  • And it’ll be $99 per year to become a developer (yee… meh)
  • Oh and you’ll need to be an authorized iPhone developer to post apps on the App Store and you’ll go through a potentially long drawn out process where you’ll receive no feedback from Apple and in the end probably get chosen or denied at random (boo!)
  • OK you can submit your apps now (yay!)
  • But it’ll take days or weeks before they’ll be approved… or denied. And again you won’t know the progress of your submission until the point we reach our decision. (boo!)
  • Oh and by the way this is still all under NDA (BOO!)
  • NullRiver’s NetShare is available. At last we can tether with the iPhone! (yay!)
  • No you can’t (boo!)
  • Yes you can (yay!)
  • No you can’t (boo!)

There have been plenty of suggested remedies to deal with these issues, but everything in Apple’s history leads me to think that Apple will tighten, rather than loosen, their control of, well pretty much everything they do. We love Apple because they create great hardware and software. They devote resources to the little details that another company might gloss over, but these details are what sets them apart from their competitors. But let’s be honest, the man running Apple would like very much if it were possible to sell you a product in which everything that you need (and don’t) has been decided upon based on aesthetics and function. The degree of openness for each of the three platforms: the Mac, iPhone, and iPod, is directly proportionally to the amount of competition Apple has in each category.

For example look back at the original Mac 128k: it will have no fan, by God, or hard drive, or ability to expand it in any way. And to make sure people didn’t try and fiddle around in it’s perfect innards the case was held together with screws that could only be removed with a special screwdriver. (Later Apple would learn their lesson and remove screws altogether from the iPod and iPhone. Can anyone, anyone at all provide a valid reason, other than aesthetics, for not providing a user replaceable battery on these devices?) The Macintosh did make a dent in the universe, but not in the way that Apple originally hoped. It brought the graphical user interface indirectly to the masses. Indirectly since sadly it was Windows based machines, which were much more open to user customization, that came to dominate the desktop computer market.

This control applies not only to hardware and software, but perhaps most importantly to the image that Apple projects. They make products for the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, and the round pegs in square holes. You’re cool if you buy an Apple product. Not a lemming like some Windows user. Ironic, since some Apple devotees happily camp out for new iPhones, iPods, OS updates, new Apple Store openings and frantically refresh their browsers windows during live blogs of any Steve Jobs presentation. This is all cultivated by Apple. All of the information that comes from Apple is carefully crafted to try and insure that they are on message. I’m not sure I’ve ever read any news articles about them that didn’t end with “Apple declined to comment”. They sued and then shut down Think Secret. Radar, Apple’s bug reporting service, is of little use to developers since they’re not allowed to see bug others have submitted. Recently I heard of a situation with a developer that had appended an iPhone application description to say that an update was ready, but Apple was working through a backlog and had not yet approved it. The developer was contacted and asked to change the description so it did not appear that the delay was Apple’s.

OK, so I’m kinda of going off in the weeds here. I didn’t really intend to just bash Apple. I only wanted to illustrate that the company has its faults and we should try and view things objectively. Apple is trying to make money. Period. They’re not trying to make the world a happy shiny place. So, while I appreciate Fraser Speirs gesture, their are thousands of developers lined up waiting to develop for the iPhone that will step in to take his place. So what incentive does Apple have to loosen the restrictions they’ve placed on development? Civil disobedience could be fun. All the developers could simultaneously change the price of their apps to $9999.99 for a day in protest. That would make news and we’d all lose our App Store privileges and likely enrage our customers, so maybe not. Or, we could hope that the outcry becomes such that it becomes felt in wider circles than just the developer community. If Apple’s image starts taking a hit they might change their minds. Although there is a slow undercurrent of dissatisfaction forming based on the cumulative effects of the recent negative actions, by and large people are willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt in most situations. Certainly Apple is given far, far wider latitude than a company like Microsoft.

So what if the iPhone comes to dominate the cell phone market the way the iPod has dominated the mp3 player market? Will we end up with the same diversity of development that we see on the iPod? Perhaps not to the same degree, but it’s reasonable to expect that the smaller players would be slowly squeezed out. What the iPhone needs is legitimate competition. Yes, there are plenty of smartphones out there, but Apple needs someone to deliver a device as elegant, or nearly so, as the iPhone. Perhaps Google’s Android or RIM is up to the challenge?

At the very least Google / RIM should try and capitalize on some of Apple’s missteps, especially with the developer community. What if RIM tried to woo away developers of applications like Podcaster with an offer to assist in bringing the application to Blackberry? Hey we’ll give you a phone, a system to develop on, the tools, and a nice chunk of cash and no NDA, if you’ll bring your application to our platform, whadaya say? It might be harder to lure away deeply loyal developers that cut their teeth on the desktop platform, but plenty of developers have no such history and would be perfectly happy to learn another SDK if the opportunity looked promising. RIM could then turn that into a great little PR campaign while their at it. Maybe even make their own 1984 type commercial with Apple playing the part of Big Brother this time.

Does all this mean, am I rooting for Blackberry, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile?! No of course not, I’m rooting for the consumer. Technology. Innovation. Apple’s recent tactics will stifle innovation and the only real remedy is healthy competition. This is exactly what the iPhone brought to the creaking cell phone industry. Now we need to the competition to respond to insure innovation continues with mobile software development.