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The iPhone OS 4 SDK was released last week, but it's not all good news for iPhone (and iPad) developers. That's because Section 3.3.1 of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement comes with a new catch:

Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs.

This addition came at a particularly bad time for Adobe, which just released the latest version of its flagship Creative Suite software bundle. Included with Flash Professional CS5 is a tool that Adobe clearly had high hopes for: the Packager for iPhone, which would give Flash developers the ability to compile their Flash applications as native iPhone apps.

Not surprisingly, Adobe wasn't amused by Apple's newest restriction. Adobe's Lee Brimelow called it a slap in the face to developers, and while much of the attention on Apple's move has focused on the battle between Adobe and Apple, other third party solutions that enable developers to build iPhone apps without writing Objective-C are also trapped in no man's land.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is aware of the controversy his company has created, and responded to one developer's email with a terse explanation:

We’ve been there before, and intermediate layers between the platform and the developer ultimately produces sub-standard apps and hinders the progress of the platform.

To be sure, there is some truth to this. Intermediate layers do, in many cases, limit a developer's ability to take full advantage of a platform's capabilities as it evolves. That obviously has implications for the platform if a significant number of developers are relying on the intermediate layers. But in blaming intermediate layers for sub-standard apps, Jobs overlooks four simple facts...

Poor programmers are always going to produce crappy software.

The language and the tools don't matter. Crappy software is rarely the product of 'intermediate layers'; it is almost always the product of developers (lazy, under-skilled, etc.). Good, experienced developers are capable of assessing their needs and selecting the right tools for the job. When it comes to iPhone/iPad apps, that might mean building an app with Objective-C. But in some cases, using a tool like Corona or Titanium Mobile could make far more sense.

Eliminating 'intermediate layers' will not, by itself, ensure that an app has been developed well, and by restricting the tools that developers can use, may actually result in lower quality apps as developers are less than ideally forced to develop using methods and tools they don't like or are less experienced with.

Platform features are overrated.

One of the arguments that can be used to support Jobs' stance is that if developers use third party tools to develop iPhone apps, developers may not be able to (or may not be encouraged to) take advantage of new features of the platform that differentiate it from other platforms.

But this is a red herring in my opinion. Anyone who has spent any time looking at iPhone apps knows: the vast majority of the apps don't take advantage of the iPhone platform's most advanced features. Again, good developers are quite capable of assessing what tools they need to achieve their goals. Apple, quite cynically, seems to believe that they're not all capable of doing this.

The iPhone/iPad developer ecosystem is so vibrant.

If there were only one or two tools that allowed developers to create iPhone apps and none were any good, Steve Jobs might have a point. But the truth of the matter is that many of the tools that enable developers to build iPhone apps without Objective-C are quite decent. And their creators have a significant incentive to stay up-to-date with the iPhone platform's capabilities and to meet Apple's quality standards. After all, the most robust tools will be most attractive to developers, and tools that produce iPhone apps that consistently pass muster (eg. get past the App Store gatekeepers) are obviously the only ones that will gain traction in the marketplace.

Lock-in offers few real-world advantages.

On the surface, Apple has reason to fear a "write once, run everywhere" world. After all, if developers can write one application and compile it for use across multiple platforms (the iPhone, Android, etc.), other platforms may increasingly be able to offer consumers the same sort of apps and experiences that are more likely to be found exclusively on the iPhone today.

But this train of thinking is flawed. There are distinct demographic differences between the users of various devices, and it's especially hard to argue that the iPhone is going to lose its consumer appeal simply because someone can buy the same apps on devices running other platforms.


In short, Steve Jobs has no logical reason to fear 'intermediate layers'. He should embrace them, and Apple would be wise to help guide the development of third party development tools by working with the companies that have created them. Apple could probably even monetize such relationships if it wanted to. But Apple's illogical ideological, emotional and competitive interests are apparently preventing it from seeing the obvious.

As I've stated before, Apple is free (and should be free) to do what it thinks is best for its business. It's hard to argue with success, and Apple has that in abundance. Apple's success today, however, masks its past failures and its fearless leader would be wise to consider that past is often prologue: a certain level of control is beneficial, but seeking too much of it is detrimental.

Apple's lust for control is a big reason why Bill Gates became the world's richest person instead of Steve Jobs (and why you're far more likely to use a PC than a Mac) and while it would be naive to argue that the today's mobile market isn't a completely different ballgame (it is), in my opinion it seems inevitable that Apple's micromanagement of the iPhone platform and overly paternalistic attitude towards developers is more likely than not to become a liability at some point, especially as the number of viable business opportunities provided by less restrictive platforms like Android grows.

Photo credit: Danny Novo via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 13 April, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2378 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Susan

How many "2007 iPhones" were sold?

If you write any OS4 apps... you will immediately lose millions of customers that can never buy your apps.

over 6 years ago

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Gerry

Maybe it is me - but Apple seems to be targeting Adobe excessively, odd as many people who buy macs are typically Adobe users (PhotoShop etc..) so it seems as they they are creating an enemy who they have the most to gain by being nice to. 

If I were Adobe I would be tempted to be a little more pro-PC in the future (and pro-Android etc..), whilst Adobe and MS go head to head over Flash Vs Silverlight MS are also huge customers of Adobe...  

over 6 years ago

Gavin Williams

Gavin Williams, Consultant at Gavin Williams

All your points are well made but we've been having the same debate with Apple for as long as I can remember. It's undisputed that Steve Jobs ensures Apple exerts a level of control over development and platforms that is anathema to the open community.

However, when it comes down to it, developers want to make money and Apple have created a platform, an audience and a payment gateway to enable them to do so. I can't see Android getting to an equivalent level within the next 18 months and I certainly don't see RIM getting anywhere near.

It seems to me that they aren't alone in wanting html5 to replace flash. Google has a beta html5 version of YouTube and they too would prefer this as the new standard.

There are so many reasons to throw bricks at the Apple orchard and for those of us who work with their products (as well as play) it can be a dispiriting experience but you can't fault their business logic. They'll only open up if they can see if will give them competitive advantage and that's what every good business should do.

I don't buy your comparison between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. It's too easily forgotten that Apple is essentially a luxury brand. They create desire and exclusivity and manufacture scarcity. They make you pay £1500 on a MacBookPro where the equivalent PC spec would cost you £700. For Apple, technology is a much about lifestyle as product and this is why they win. And of course they have Jonathan Ive! 

If you look at the relevant stock positions of Apple and Microsoft at the moment, which one would you invest in?

over 6 years ago

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Mark

Quite agree Gerry. Apple seems to believe they have some vested interest in the canvas element in HTML 5 (which I'm led to believe they pushed hard for against the general concensus) and pushing flash out of browsers but ultimately the Adobe Suite is still the core why a lot of people buy mac. As a web developer myself it's the combination of Creative Suite and Unix OS that keep me on mac. If Adobe finally release a version for Linux I think there might be a good number of developers/creatives happy to jump ship.

While creatives are probably a much smaller proportion of Apple's market these days, they are still the commited core market and part of the kudos that makes up Apple's appeal to its wider audience.

over 6 years ago

Gavin Williams

Gavin Williams, Consultant at Gavin Williams

Patricio

We're probably not too far apart on this, but I enjoyed your reply so I'd like to offer you some examples where companies in competitive markets sustain a model that holds customers and partners at gunpoint. For example: Tesco in the supermarket sector (ask any farmer); BP, or any oil company you can think of (literally at gunpoint in this case); and Coke in the FMCG sector (just ask your local shop keeper) to name an obvious three.

The stock comparison isn't accurate. We're comparing companies not market conditions. Microsoft vs Apple - one a company notorious for copying other peoples ideas vs a company who renowned for innovating and ruthlessly protecting patents. 

It's very clear that Steve Jobs current envy isn't directed towards Steve Balmer, it's directed towards Eric Schmidt. Google are Apple's main focus these days and it seems to me that Microsoft ceased to be of interest to jobs many dark moons ago.

If you will allow me to channel the spirt of Marx (Karl not Groucho) - Capitalism is a dirty place to live and Jobs is an arch practitioner. There are no free and open markets. One of the ironies of companies that become global multi-national players is that they increasingly look to protectionism/regulation to help sustain their business and hurt their competitors.

over 6 years ago

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