Apple bets big on its ability to rapidly grow its mobile platform.
The changes to section 3.3.1 of Apple’s iPhone SDK license agreement have been extensively covered on the web. Apple’s position is well expressed by a pair of articles. John Gruber gives a high-level view in his Jobs-approved piece, while Louis Gerbarg provides a more technical perspective. As usual, I’m thinking meta.
The “section 3.3.1” issue is just another in a long line of events that have the same basic shape: actions taken by Apple in what it believes to be the best interest of its platform (and, by extension, itself) that run afoul of the interests and opinions of developers. Any Apple follower can surely list others: the lack of Flash on the iPhone, the App Store as the sole gateway for iPhone applications, deprecating Carbon, and on and on.
Apple’s decisions regarding its mobile platform in particular have been extremely protective from the very start. Cumulatively, these actions represent a huge bet placed by Apple. The proposition is this: Apple is betting it can grow its platform fast enough, using any means necessary, that developers will stick around despite all the hardships and shoddy treatment. Each time it chooses to do what it thinks is best for the future of the iPhone OS platform instead of what will please developers, Apple is pushing more chips into the pot.
Like the Mac, the iPhone debuted with a huge technical lead over its competitors. But this time, Apple is determined not to squander its advantage. Instead, it’s front-running as hard as it possibly can. Anything that has any chance of slowing down “the progress of the platform” has simply got to go. And the best way Apple knows to ensure platform progress is by controlling its own destiny in every way that it can. That means, among other things, no middleware vendors, no encouragement of cross-platform development (either explicit or implicit), and complete, arbitrary control over every application’s presence on the platform.
It’s Apple’s contention that other mobile platforms that allow these things, most of which developers adore, do so at the cost of slowing the speed with which they advance upon their competitors. In Apple’s case, it’s trying to put as much distance between itself and the guys it sees in its rear-view mirror. And why? Because the only way to keep developers around while you do things that annoy them and sometimes hurt their business is to provide so much upside—customers, sales and marketing support, new revenue models—that they’re willing to choke down the bad stuff.
The win scenario is big: Apple as the dominant player in the most important new technology market. Microsoft-level dominance. But the flip-side is terrible—though I can see how it may have snuck up on Apple. If Apple fails to outrun developer dissatisfaction with its platform’s success, it’s not much work to change the offending App Store policies, issue a new SDK license agreement, etc. All of these problems are policy-related, and a policy is easy to change, right? Unfortunately, developers’ hearts and minds don’t change so easily. In fact, they’re pretty darned stubborn. If Apple ever gets to the point where it needs to change its developer-unfriendly policies in order to maintain its momentum, it will most likely be too late. Opinions will have been formed, grudges cemented.
Just like in Vegas, it’s easy to get heavily invested in a pot before you realize what’s happening. At that point, you have to decide if continuing would be throwing good money after bad, or if your hand really is as strong as you think. So far, Apple’s hasn’t gone all-in (whatever that might look like). As in real gambling, I’m sure Apple hopes that it never has to go that far. But it’s happening slowly, by increments.
Apple is playing a dangerous game of chicken with itself. On one hand you have its mobile platform strategy and associated products, succeeding in the market and growing ever upwards and outwards. On the other hand you have the policies that are ostensibly making this happen, pissing off developers and causing high-level corporate clashes. If the platform outruns the angry developers and partners, Apple wins, and wins big. But if things start to go south for the platform, Apple’s options are becoming fewer by the day.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.