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Where do developers draw the line with Apple?

Two developers, one out of iPhone development and the other still in, examine the App Store.

Dan Grigsby, founder of Mobile Orchard, is abandoning iPhone development. The reason? Apple’s “ask permission” environment doesn’t work for him anymore. He explained his decision in a recent blog post:

Ask permission environments crush creativity and innovation. In healthy environments, when would-be innovators/creators identify opportunities, the only thing that stands between the idea and its realization is work. In the iPhone OS environment when you see an opportunity, you put in work first, ask Apple’s permission and then, only after gaining their approval, your idea can be realized. I’ve always worked at the edge; it’s where the interesting opportunities live. None of the startup[s] I’ve created would have been possible in an ask permission environment.

What’s interesting here — from an industry perspective — is that if you get past the Apple vs. Adobe vs. OS 4.0 vs. what-have-you stuff, there’s two legitimate viewpoints floating around. You’ve got developers like Grigsby who find Apple’s model too limiting. So they get out. And then you’ve got devs who think the App Store opportunity outweighs the obstacles (for now). Dan Pilone, co-author of “Head First iPhone Development” and founder of Element 84, is in that second group.

After corresponding with Grigsby and Pilone, I was struck by how much they have in common. There aren’t any vast philosophical differences at play here. Both dislike aspects of Apple’s model and both also see lots of opportunity in the App Store. Yet one is in and one is out.

The concerns

To help me understand his fundamental problems with Apple’s model, Grigsby began by outlining the series of events that led to his departure from iPhone development.

iPad Coverage

Grigsby: Very often, you would have a group of developers in some kind of social setting and one would say, “I want to give you a free copy of my app.” And in one case, a guy handed me a business card that had a URL for the iTunes store. And then he gave me a dollar and said, “Just go buy my app.” That’s crazy. I don’t want your dollar. I want you to be able to whip out your iPhone and give me a promo code.

So, I wrote a single-site browser that would interact with iTunes Connect and let iPhone developers generate a promo code. Now I knew, because I’ve read the terms and conditions, that would never be allowed into the App Store. There’s language in there that says you can’t scrape the store. I was going to distribute the source instead. But I talked to some attorneys and they said Apple could decide that bothers them and kick me out of the program.

From what I perceived as maybe a $10,000 or $20,000 opportunity, I had to make a decision as to whether I should stay in this business. That’s such an uncomfortable place to be. And so that most recent experience, the “you live or you die at Apple’s discretion,” made me start to look at all of the other examples of places where they’re treating the App Store as an extension of their brand as opposed to just a marketplace. I lost all of my enthusiasm. I made a decision that I was going to change to something else.

Pilone has his concerns as well. He’s a pragmatist, not an evangelist. He noted, for example, that recent app snubs should raise red flags for all developers.

Pilone: I think there’s a potentially significant risk lurking out there. That’s the approval process. Not from an “Are you using undocumented APIs?” perspective. That’s an easy one to avoid. But from a “No thanks, you’re competing with something we’ve already done,” or “We don’t want that kind of application on our phone,” perspective.

Google Voice is the poster child for this issue, and there was a lot of rumor and speculation over whether the Opera browser was going to make it into the store (it ultimately did). This now begs the question, if Google Voice was delayed (Apple never officially rejected it as far as I know) because the voice, voicemail and SMS features duplicated functionality already on the phone, on what grounds could the Opera browser possibly be accepted? The point being, there’s a real business risk of investing in a product only to have it completely rejected without any real avenues to rectify the situation. I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it is. Obviously 180,000+ other applications have managed to get into the store. But it’s a risk.

A secondary marketplace

One proposed solution to developers’ concerns is for Apple to allow a secondary market to take root. This would be an open space where developers who don’t want to go through Apple’s process can sell their apps legitimately. I posed this alternative to both Grigsby and Pilone.

Grigsby said a secondary marketplace would be a fine addition, but he’s interested in a different change: he believes markets will naturally form if users can install software on Apple devices in much the same way developers can.

Grigsby: When you give someone the fundamental ability to install software on their phone, entrepreneurs will build marketplaces and create discoverability. Obviously, that’s a threat to Apple. And so I can see Apple’s point in all of this. This is why when you talk to me, I’m sad. I’m not mad. But it runs against my principles.

Pilone responded with a host of big questions:

Pilone: How many “secondary” marketplaces are we talking about? One? Two? Who decides? As a consumer, do I need to worry about all of them? What’s my purchasing, downloading and installation experience like? Do I get enough value in the apps in that “store” to justify the time and complexity of having to figure it out? Sure, there will be power users who would use it, and as a developer I don’t want to ignore that crowd, but really, in the grand scheme of things, what apps do you want or need that aren’t in the App Store now? I go back to the philosophy that if a secondary market is valuable to you (as a developer or a consumer), go with a device that has it.

In or out?

I asked Grisby what Apple would have to do to get him back. He laughed, claiming he has no say in the matter. But in the off chance Apple asked, there’s only one thing he wants:

Grigsby: I’m not standing outside saying, “Apple, you will do this or else.” I recognize that my voice doesn’t command that kind of authority with them. But I’d be happy if they gave people the ability to distribute apps outside of the store. I love marketing. I’m a marketing hacks kind of guy. So I can get people to find the applications. Just give me the ability to freely create works and find a market for them and I’ll be happy.

It’s a simple enough request. Just one tweak to the model, right? But in the course of my exchange with Pilone, he hit on the fundamental problem developers face: Apple is, above all else, focused on the consumer. Anything that runs counter to that isn’t debatable.

Pilone: I take a very pragmatic approach to this. I think it’s important for people (read: developers) to realize that Apple is a consumer products company. At the end of the day, they’re about consumers, not developers. Apple philosophically believes that by delivering a closed system they can deliver a better consumer product. The success of the iPod and iPhone strongly supports that argument.

Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad are “closed” devices that are 100-percent targeted at the end users. Developers are welcome, but you’re going to support Apple’s vision of the end-user experience whether you want to or not. Ultimately, it’s a gamble for Apple. They’re taking a risk that if they alienate too many developers, some other platform may draw them in. But Apple’s wagering that if they make the best consumer product out there, it will have the largest user base. Developers will code for it because that’s where they can be paid for their work and reach the broadest audience.

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  • Caleb

    As a consumer Apple’s policies also turn me away. I want to use the software I want on my device and I don’t want Apple or anyone else controlling me.

  • Cru

    If this were windows vs mac the same people harping on iPhone sales would make up some reason why an enormous windows user base doesn’t mean it’s better.

    All this means is that Apple’s closed system constructs the best lemming trap.

  • Matthew

    I realize that the situation is frustrating for developers. I also think some things about Apple’s policies are unnecessary. However, I can understand terms that prohibit use of undocumented APIs, etc. If you look at Windows, they are saddled with major compatibility issues because so many developers use undocumented APIs from old versions of Windows. Microsoft doesn’t want to lose customers of those software products, so they spend countless dollars and hours of work to support old, undocumented systems so that the customer’s copy of Photoshop doesn’t suddenly stop working when they buy a new PC or version of windows. With Apple taking such tight control of what gets into the App store, they can make sure that applications won’t break when new OS versions come out. I think this makes sense for a cell phone. Would it be better if you could just go to a website and download an app for your phone instead of going through Apple? I say yes. However, I can see at least this one reason why it’s very good for them to do things this way.

  • Keith Peters

    “by delivering a closed system they can deliver a better consumer product. The success of the iPod and iPhone strongly supports that argument.”

    There’s no real logic in this.

    1. The iPhone is a success because it is a great piece of hardware and has a great OS. Neither of these would be affected by a non-closed app submission system.

    2. There is a VAST quantity of horrible, useless, ugly, poorly performing, unusable games and apps in the app store. The closed system did not guard against these and did not increase the quality of the platform. What there is NOT in the store is anything that threatens Apple or Jobs’ moral standards. It protects against these things marvelously.

  • Bjelkeman

    @Caleb by reading O’Reilly Radar I think you disqualify yourself as a “consumer” in this context. You may consume App Store products, but you think about the implications of the terms of service (even know what they are) which is way beyond what a standard “consumer” would ever do.

  • Andy

    WTF is Grigsby smoking here ?No way was his crummy single site browser idea a ‘$20,000 – $30,000′ idea. The guy is clearly delusional. And I don’t know of any developer who’d go to the lengths of consulting attorneys before posting source code. What a bunch of crap.
    All developers have the fundamental ability to install whatever software they like on their phone – they don’t need to ‘ask permission’ from Apple to do so. That’s only required to distribute it – I can’t believe Grigsby’s unclear about that distinction.

    There are plenty of other (less successful), more ‘open’ platforms to go develop on. If the App store offends your principles then go and develop on those. Just stop griping about it like some spoilt kid. Sheesh.

  • Matthew Frederick

    Pilone notes, “At the end of the day, they’re about consumers, not developers.”

    However, the changes to 3.3.1 — the “Apple vs. Adobe” thing — protect their existing Objective C developers from a flood of Flash-based apps. I see this move a protecting their developers in a very meaningful way.

  • G.Irish

    The problem as I see it is that Apple’s app approval policies are opaque and inconsistent. They may reject your app for showing bikinis while at the same time approving SI’s Swimsuit app.

    As if that weren’t enough, Apple has also dragged developers into market warfare with the infamous 3.3.1 clause to their ToS. In one fell swoop Apple screwed over any developer using Unity3D, Monotouch, and the Flash compiler from Adobe. Why? So they could prevent cross-platform development and cut off any platform rivals at the knees.

    This type of behavior makes investment in the iPhoneOS ecosystem risky because you never know when Apple will arbitrarily pull the rug out from under you. For a small developer it could easily result in being put out of business.

    If the whole issue were really about the “consumers” Apple would simply reject any app that doesn’t meet their performance requirements. Instead, they took the nuclear option which now gives developers even more reason not to trust Apple.

  • Ank

    Andy: his tool was for devs and there are other people selling similar source code to what he’s describing for 20 or 30 bucks a program, it’s not unreasonable to think he can make good money from iphonedevs who want and need that functionality.

    Also he said it was a 10k to 20k opportunity, not 20 to 30 as you quoted him, you dishonest, hostile troll.