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April 2010
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2010-04-21 »

Why alienating developers is a winning strategy

I love this new iPhone SDK rule - the one that says you have to write all your apps in pure Objective C with no translation layers. Not because it's good for me (it isn't), but because it's fun to watch an old-school titan - Apple - play the platform game like they mean it. There hasn't been fun like this since Bill Gates left Microsoft.1

Here's the story so far:

  1. Lots of people bought iPhone 1.0 (without apps) because it was inherently awesome.
  2. Lots of people developed apps for it because there were so many users *and* it was awesome.
  3. About 10x more people bought it because it was even more awesome because of all the apps.
  4. Every other platform (hi, Android) is inferior because it has fewer users and developers and thus apps.2
  5. Go back to step 2 and repeat.

(You might have seen this story before; see Crossing the Chasm and its highly-relevant-to-this-discussion sequel, Inside the Tornado.)

Then, suddenly, Apple clamped down even further on its SDK and app store.3 Shocking! People argue that this breaks the positive feedback cycle: this will mean fewer developers, which means fewer apps, which means less awesome, which means fewer users, which means other platforms can compete, and so on.

No.

Here's the paradox. Apple does need developers to maintain the cycle of awesomeness. What Apple's doing is not good for developers. And developers will continue the cycle anyway.

This is why:

Apple owns the platform; if their platform wins, they win bigger than anybody else. All they need to do to win is to continue to deliver awesomeness to end users as fast as possible so that nobody can catch up. Because they're the biggest platform, they have the most money, so this isn't that hard to do.

The other players are the end users. They have to buy Apple stuff in order for the cycle to continue. The awesomeness must be there or they won't buy stuff. Java and Flash are the opposite of awesomeness. Thus, Apple rejects them outright.4

Developers are not part of the strategy. As a developer, you don't make decisions based on awesomeness at all. You might think you do, and the first iPhone developers ("early adopters") did, but that's not you. The modern developers, the ones with the pre-made market and fully-debugged SDK and profitable clients paying you to write iPhone apps, build for iPhone only because it's the leading platform.

In the long term, developers like you would be better off if they would boycott Apple and only develop awesome apps for something more open, like Android or even Blackberry.5 Users, as they do, would rapidly switch to the platform with the widest variety of awesome stuff, and everybody would win.

But you aren't going to do that, are you? Because nobody else will either. Unless all the developers switch, the only developers who switch will be suckers. You don't want to be a sucker. You want to make as much money in the short term before the whole thing inevitably implodes. Because it will implode, right? ...right?

Microsoft won on the desktop by being developer-friendly and Apple won in mobile by being developer-hostile. Developers never had anything to do with it.

Footnotes

1 The closest we have right now is Google vs. Yahoo vs. Microsoft, ie. a bunch of clueless losers shaking their fists at each other. Google isn't winning in search/advertising because of their awesome strategy; they're winning because the competition keeps producing crap. Which is an okay reason to win, but it's not thrilling. Apple vs. World is thrilling.

2 Actually #4 isn't even strictly true; last I heard, there are still way more Blackberries than iPhones in active use. But people believe it's true, which is all that matters for this discussion.

3 To be honest, the Apple app store was kinda fascist from day 1, so we're just comparing on a relative scale here. But people get upset anyway.

4 All apps written in Java or Flash are ugly and stupid, so end users benefit directly from this restriction. Another reason for Apple to reject such cross-platform apps is admittedly self-serving: if you own the leading platform, you will always get the app. So if you make it hard to port apps between platforms, you're sabotaging the other platforms, not yours.

5 Ha ha, I just called the Blackberry "open," even though the only language you could use to develop apps for it for years has been Java. Somehow Java people manage to spin horrible restrictions as features. "100% Pure Java!" and so on.

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