Misguided Developers: Apple dominates mobile development now, but “open” will win in the end

The way developers see it, Apple might be dominating the game today but in the long-term, it will be Google and its open platform approach that will take the top honors.

Right. Just like Linux with its “open platform approach” took “top honors” on the desktop. Which reminds me, is this The Year Of Linux again?

Anyway, you can develop an app taking advantage of unique hardware and software with off the charts customer satisfaction scores, or you can write lowest-common-denominator code in Java or Flash on wildly fluctuating devices. The choice is yours.

I’ve said before that Google can have all the philosophical/political developers they want. I still believe that. I’ve seen no correlation between a developer’s politics and ability to code.

Consumers just want a really great app. Whether the developer can also sell it on a dozen other devices doesn’t mean diddly to a typical end user (you know, the ones developers should be trying to sell to). Further, whether an app is “open” is irrelevant in a tech world where the meaning of that word has been twisted by every corporate entity to mean whatever it needs to in order to fit their marketing plan.

The “open” advocates are misguided believing they don’t want to buy or code for an Apple device because the six-inch high “wall” around Apple’s “garden” has only allowed over 39,000 developers and 225,000 apps—way more than competitors’ alleged “open” systems have—but it’s the theory, not the practice, that matters to such people.

Why Apple Should Not “Open Up” the iPhone

In a thoughtful piece, Macworld’s Jason Snell argues that it’s time for Apple to “open up” the iPhone. 

No, I’m here to say to Apple that while I understand very well the reasons for the company’s walled-garden approach to native iPhone OS apps, the strengths of that approach have now been surpassed by the bad publicity and reputation that Apple and its products are now getting in the market as a whole.

Though well-meaing, when I look at the reasoning provided, I find I cannot agree with any of it. 

I was showing [a non-technical colleague] my new iPad. His response to me was shocking: He said that he had been interested in buying an iPad, but needed to read PDF files, and since Apple only supported its own formats, he couldn’t buy one.

There’s nothing in opening up the iPhone that would stop his colleague form thinking that. Heck, there are people who think a Mac can’t read Microsoft Word documents even though Word’s been on the Mac over 20 years! This kind of perception is simply not possible to prevent, and even if it were, an “open” iPhone wouldn’t do it. 

There’s porn on the iPhone now. Not only does the iPhone have free and easy access to all the porn on the Web, but there’s even an iPhone Porn App Store that sells (web-based) porn apps that work on unmodified iPhone OS devices.

This same argument works for any non-App Store app. Point being, don’t point out that “closed” is no good because we have the web, but then argue we must have “open” while ignoring that same web. Indeed, Steve Jobs all but begged developers to write web apps in the iPhone’s first year, and was mocked for it.  

Can’t get your app on the iPhone? Write a web app. Oh, but then you wouldn’t get all the benefits of the App Store. Guess what? You won’t get those benefits from “open” apps, either. Which means many complaints about web apps will become the complaints about “open” apps. It won’t shut up the critics, it’ll likely make them louder. 

Another reason Apple has probably been hesitant to open up the iPhone to unapproved apps is, that people will write malicious apps, and the damage those apps cause could harm Apple and tarnish the iPhone’s image. It’s true, so far as it goes. But of course, people can jailbreak their iPhones now, and we’ve already seen reports of iPhone malware on those phones.

I don’t see how jailbreaking belongs in this conversation. First, while “open” is a geek argument to begin with, jailbreaking is even a smaller subset of that. I’m a geek, and have never considered jailbreaking. Second, it’s unsupported, whereas “open” apps would be a supported Apple solution.

All Apple needs to do is add a new feature, buried several menu items down in the Settings app, that mirrors the one found on Android devices: an option that lets you install Apps from “unknown sources.” If a user tried to turn this option on, they’d get a scary warning about how these sources couldn’t be trusted, and that they may lead to instability, crashes, loss of data, you name it. Scary stuff.

The Microsoft solution? Oh please no. How many “scary warnings” did Mac users have to sit through in the 90s regarding QuickTime or other non-Microsoft technologies that kept users from straying? Now Apple should do the same? No. If Apple implemented “open” this way, some might be OK with it but I’d call them on it. If nothing else, let’s be clear that if Apple does “open up”, make it a slider somewhere that says it allows apps to be installed from various sources other than the App Store, and be done with it. The user slides it On or Off, that’s it.

But by putting [the option mentioned above] there, Apple immediately shuts up every single claim that the iPhone isn’t open.

This is the gist of Mr. Snell’s argument, but I don’t see it. Such apps would have zero benefit of the App Store and, as with web apps, it seems devs and critics want it all. These are the arguments I see within a few weeks of the “open” iPhone: 

  • AppCo CEO Ima Weasel claims their BestApp app would sell like hot cakes, but Apple refuses to promote it. “Apple only promotes apps in their store”, Ima explained, “and won’t promote anything that doesn’t get them 30%. It’s all about greed.” It will be ignored, of course, that Apple’s 30% includes hosting, exposure, collection, possible promotion, sales statements, etc., and that these services are included even for free apps, for which there’s no 30%. 
  • It’s become clear that Apple’s “open” app policy was a cynical move to silence critics and fool consumers, while simultaneously making it too difficult for the average user to find and install such apps. Until Apple raises the usability and exposure of the “open” store to a level closer to their own, it will serve only as a shield to deflect criticism of their “walled garden.” This will ignore that the “average user” never cared about an “open” iPhone in the first place, and that Apple should obviously not have to give a second app option equal footing with its own. 
  • Apple rejected another app today. “We simply think farting bikini babes is inappropriate for our store”, said an Apple spokesperson, “but the the developer is free to utilize the “open” option.” But Apple knows the “open” store is a relative ghost town. Indeed, Apple appears to utilize the “open” option primarily to reject more apps than before, since they can claim the developer has another venue in which to sell them. In a sense, “opening” the store allowed Apple to tighten their grip on what’s essentially still a closed platform. Make no mistake, this Apple-opened-to-become-more-closed argument will get huge play. They’ll be accused of “banishing” apps to the “open” option. Count on it. 

Can any one following the anti-Apple shrieking over the last three years not see those articles being written? I see them as clearly as the Mac I’m writing this on. And they’ll gain traction, too, especially with Apple’s competitors.

So, no, the “open” iPhone will not silence the critics. Rather, it will give them more attack vectors to claim Apple is actually moving to solidify their closed, anti-competitive environment. An environment they can’t even prove Apple possesses. Meanwhile, Apple would be stuck with more criticism and accusations, from more quarters, with more wild speculation than they have now. And to make it worse, they’ll have to support it.

And the tech press fails us again

You were obviously being very clear [in that] Apple is closed and Google is open.

This was from an interview with Vic Gundotra at Tech Crunch’s Disrupt conference. The interviewer simply states that Google is “open” and Apple is “closed”, and that’s that. She’s not even questioning Google’s alleged openness.

How can a firm that’s implementing Flash, as closed and proprietary as they come, be considered open? And where is Google’s published search algorithm? Google’s only “open” for stuff they don’t care about (i.e. doesn’t make them money) and when it makes good PR, especially for a tech press uninterested in seeing past the next press release.

Google: A “draconian” future is OK, as long as it’s ours

“It’s really fun to work with other folks in the ecosystem to meet the needs of users, much nicer than just saying no.”

Actually, Mr. Gundotra, Google is meeting the needs of its business and the corporations it’s chosen to work with. Users come after that.

There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s Google’s business plan and they’re free to pursue it. Unlike so many, I have no issue with “walled gardens”, since it’s my choice to enter one or not. Let the best company (products, services, and support) win.

My gripe is masking it with BS buzzwords like “freedom” and “open” when we’re talking about products like Flash, or a hardware Google TV component not likely to accept Yahoo! or Bing searches. There are a lot of questions for Google to answer, but a fawning tech press seems unwilling to ask them.