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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