Developers, Developers, Developers

November 20th, 2010

John Gruber:

I’ve complained, numerous times, about the “how many total apps are in your store?” metric — the idea that Apple is “winning” because there are more iOS apps than there are apps for any other mobile platform. If quantity of app titles were all that mattered, we’d all be using Windows, not Mac OS X, right? Having the most apps matters, but having the best apps matters too. The sweet spot for a platform is to do well in both regards.

He’s exactly right, but I think Gruber understates his argument here. iOS’s main advantage is consistent quality—we use the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad because they are all around better devices than anything else out there, hardware and software.

Third-party applications have become an important element in this. I don’t stick with the iOS platform just because the work Apple does; I stick with it because iOS has the best developers, too. Since Apple demands the highest quality work from themselves, this focus trickles down to their third-party developers, too.1

That’s Apple’s main differentiator from Android: when you buy an iOS device, you are guaranteed a well-thought out experience, on all ends. While Android is a fine platform, it’s a free-for-all, with all of the benefits and harms that entails. You may very well benefit from a modified homescreen or app launcher, but you also have to deal with an app market full of knockoffs and copyright-violating crap, fragmentation, and carrier nonsense.

Google’s argument for Android is that it’s an open platform, where people are free to do as they please to their devices, to make them “personalized.” Apple’s argument is that they will control the experience, and since they have excellent taste, users will benefit—from Apple’s good choices, from their innovation, and by not having to worry about modifying their phone so it works for them.

But as Gruber points out, the quality of third-party applications matters a lot here. No matter how good the device, OS and system applications are, if the third-party applications are terrible, then Apple can’t make this argument, because iOS will no longer be a platform. This means that one of iOS’s most important assets is its third-party developers.

Apple, then, needs to take care of them. Mostly this means that they must first continue to grow the platform’s user base and second must continue developing the SDK to provide the best mobile developing experience, but there’s a third part here, too: they must keep them happy. Apple’s worked hard, albeit unintentionally, since iPhone OS 2 was released to piss off developers; the first offense was retaining the NDA even after iPhone OS 2 was officially released, shackling developers from talking about it, and then followed that up with a number of high-profile capricious application rejections. This simply can’t happen, because Apple cannot give their developers any reason to leave the platform. They need them.

Luckily this wasn’t because Apple somehow has some vendetta against developers, but rather because they made serious mistakes while trying to build a quality platform. They’ve shown this in the past few months by releasing a codified set of rules for iOS applications to follow and softening their application rejections significantly—Google Voice on the App Store is testament. They must continue doing so.

iOS has something that Android, no matter how much it improves, can never have: a consistent, quality experience. Google chose openness over consistency, and that’s just how it works. This is iOS’s primary differentiator, and Apple should do everything it can to protect it.

  1. This doesn’t mean, of course, that most applications in the App Store are high quality; they aren’t. But the number of great developers on the platform is incredible. []