The iPhone Platform

October 7th, 2008

I wrote in June:

I think what this means is Apple not only still believes in software-hardware integration, and selling devices with high-profit margins, but that Apple’s long-term strategy is to dominate the post-PC market. The “post-PC” is a mobile device that, in Apple’s vision, complements a desktop PC, and is specific in function. It is the iPhone.

Apple is taking this pricing risk with the iPhone because they want to build the preeminent mobile platform, and the only way to do that is to sell a shitload of them.

Apple wants to establish the iPhone platform, the post-PC’s Mac, before Android, the post-PC’s Windows, has a chance to take off.

Gruber wrote last week:

The problem is that the apps that are the most interesting, the most important, are the ones that take the most work to create. And the apps that take the most work to create are the ones that are most likely not even to be made in this environment, because the risk is greater. The more work it takes to create an app, the more you lose if Apple rejects it. Going back to the ladder analogy, the higher you’re trying to climb, the more you need to trust the ladder before you start.

It’s not about a handful of developers who’ve had their apps rejected. It’s about all the other developers who are now spooked, and that the ones who are the most spooked are the ones who harbor the grandest, boldest, most innovative ideas.

I still believe Apple is positioning the iPhone to do what the Mac never did — dominate a nascent market with incredible growth potential. Their goal is to make the iPhone the only platform worth developing for.

The iPhone as a platform has incredible advantages over its competitors. It is connected with perhaps the most successful consumer product ever, the iPod, and enjoys the recognition and respect from consumers that connection entails. It is the only phone in the market that is as good a media player as an actual iPod, syncs with iTunes, and can download and play media from the iTunes Store. It is the most well-thought out, comprehensive, and intuitive device on the market. It is built by a company that really loves good design.

That is a lot of positives, which its competitors, for the foreseeable future, cannot match. It should be the dominant platform.

Notice the word there. It should be the dominant platform, not the dominant phone. But no matter how many advantages the iPhone has over its competitors, without developers, it will fail.

Gruber is exactly right. The problem isn’t that we lost Podcaster, MailWrangler and a fart-simulating application. The problem is that by refusing or removing these applications based on nothing more than Apple’s whim, the trust between developer and Apple is violated. Developers are unlikely to invest months into designing and developing a really great application if, even when they follow every single rule, their application may not even make it on the store. They will either not develop it at all, or will develop for Android.

If the iPhone is going to succeed as a platform, it must foster a positive developer community like the Mac has. One where good ideas and good design are encouraged. Apple must understands this, but what is scary is they are acting like they do not. Their actions suggest that developers will continue to build applications no matter what conditions they set — like they think that the developer community is incidental to the main show, what Apple itself develops for the iPhone.

Apple cannot be ambivalent toward the iPhone developer community. It must actively foster its growth as much as it can so the iPhone developer community can be the same asset the Mac developer community is for the Mac. If they do not, the iPhone may very well fall to Android.

Not because Android is better than iPhone OS X, but because its design is good enough, and if developers switch to Android rather than the iPhone, because it has a larger and better selection of applications. It may end up that innovative development happens on Android. If this happens, it does not matter what incredible work Apple does.

Apple has everything it needs to have the best mobile platform in the market. Great product, great customers, and a loyal developer base who wants Apple to succeed. Developers’ response to Apple’s lifting of the iPhone NDA showed just how much they want the iPhone to be the platform. News spread across the Mac community and received universal praise. Even better, people began doing things to encourage better design and code. Brent Simmons immediately set up a temporary iPhone developer mailing list. Craig Hockenberry published an article on making iPhone applications work together. These people want the iPhone to do well, and they want its third-party applications to be great. They have been waiting for months to help other developers, but have been waiting for the green light from Apple.

That is all Apple needs to do — give everyone the green light. And we already know how they can do that. Gruber, as usual, succinctly explains:

  1. State the rules.
  2. Follow the rules.

That, at least, eliminates the chill effect Gruber describes. Developers know what is and is not allowed, and thus can develop without fear their application will be rejected.

The rules, though, could be excessively strict. Essentially, Apple should stick to the rules they set forth in March 2008 when they announced the SDK. They will not allow applications which:

  • Are illegal
  • Are malicious
  • Are porn
  • Violate privacy
  • Hog bandwith

Those are Apple’s own rules, and that should be it. Everything else should be allowed, if Apple’s goal is to build a dominant platform. If that is not their goal, fine — but I think it is, and the only way it is going to really succeed is if developers are reasonably free to build whatever they want. We would never accept Apple banning applications on the Mac for “duplicating” existing functionality, because it would diminish the developer community, and we should not accept it on the iPhone for the same reason. Unless Apple allows a reasonable amount of freedom, the platform will never be dominant.