Back In

Last year, I wrote a piece entitled "App Store: I'm Out", which got a little attention. As strange as it feels to be in a position where I have to explain myself, I thought I should write about why I'm again working on an iPhone OS product.

If I wanted to have to constantly twist to justify the opinions of the past, I would enter politics. As it is, we software developers have the luxury of changing our minds as time and requirements dictate.

After the iPad announcement, I wrote a piece entitled "Future Shock", which got a lot of traffic. The reason I was so sure my take was solid was that I've spent a year working through my own future shock over the direction of Apple's platforms. The first piece I alluded to was my own future shock speaking: "They can't make us submit to app review! They can't reject our apps!".

Well, Apple can and Apple absolutely is. That ship sailed some time ago and I have reconciled myself to the idea that the old indie ways on Mac OS X are never going to be available on iPhone OS.

I do not intend to argue that the problems I enumerated about the App Store have gone away. They largely remain and, in some cases, are worse than they were when I first wrote.

The lengthy app review problem has mostly been solved. It's amusing to see tweets like "my update is taking more than 5 hours, haven't seen that kind of delay in ages". A year ago it was two weeks.

The problem of approval - as opposed to review - remains. In particular, the problem that you may be removed at a moment's notice with few channels to quickly remedy the situation is a significant business risk. Few businesses can afford to unexpectedly lose a week or more of revenue and make payroll.

The problem of app rejection - the idea that you build your app and only then find out if you can sell it - remains. It must be said that the number of apps falling foul of this is decreasing. However, it is not an insignificant problem, particularly when approval is not for life and can be withdrawn at any time.

The App Store continues to represent serious risk. However, in business, risk is the currency.

So, having said all that, why am I 'back in'?

When I first wrote  about my feelings towards the App Store, it was in the  arrogant and vain hope that it might have changed something. The direction of the iPhone OS ecosystem is now clear. To stick to an opinion regardless is to see the world as you would like it to be, not as it actually is.

Down that road lies the Free Software Foundation, and I have zero interest in finding myself in 2020 a bitter forty-something man fighting the battles of a decade ago.

The second factor in this was the iPad. When iPhone OS was just that - a phone operating system - it was obvious at the Apple future would be a combination of iPhone OS devices and Mac OS X computers. Post-iPad, that judgment is far from obviously sound. Having seen the reaction to the iPad from actual potential users, the secure future of the Mac OS as a general consumer computing platform is no longer as clear to me as it once was.

Be clear: I'm not saying OS X is dead, nor that Apple has no interest in improving it. I am saying that I suspect that the days of everyone buying a MacBook to get online are soon to be over. I've already written about how I see our three-Mac family turning into a one-Mac, three-iPad family over the next hardware cycle and I imagine that scenario repeated industry-wide over time. Already the ratio of iPhone OS devices to Macs is 5:2.

This feels like the settling of the wild west. The days of rugged individualism in computing are starting to close. The freedoms we had will still be possible but as with living in remote areas hunting and trapping your own food, few will care to accept those privations in return for the absolutes of liberty.

So where does that leave the small developer? In some ways, we have to shape up a bit. I don't want to say that we have to "become more professional" because, in large part, the Mac indie scene was one of the most professionally committed around.

What I think I prefer is the aviation analogy. We are no longer playing Burt Rutan and building our own aircraft. We're building components for the Boeing or Airbus ecosystems now. Nothing wrong with that - many people do a great job and make a very good living at that. What is lost is the software equivalent of the romance of flight.

I’m Scottish. Frying things and pessimism are our two main industries. It’s worth looking on the bright side too: the iPhone OS ecosystem has in its short life, brought a few incredible things too.

It’s undeniable that iPhone OS devices are incredibly stable. Last night I spent a frustrating hour trying to get my iMac to reboot into a functioning state after it crashed. That was an hour I had planned to spend in bed. In a post-iPhone, post-iPad world such failures feel even less acceptable than before.

iPhone OS is the first mass-market operating system where consumers are no longer afraid to install software on their computers (I’m not counting read-only media software platforms like games consoles here). In a conversation recently, a friend recounted a scene that he passed by in an airport. Four fifty-something women were sitting at a cafe table discussing the latest apps they had downloaded on their iPod touches. New software can’t break your iPhone OS device and, if you don’t like it, total removal is only a couple of taps away.

Finally, the devices are incredibly cheap by comparison with traditional laptop hardware. I could buy myself every iPad that comes out over the course of a three-year hardware cycle and still spend less than I did on laptops. The software is inexpensive too. There remain great strides to be made on discoverability and trials in the App Store. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s now a large constituency of users just venturing into their first experiences of purchasing third-party software.

Simply put, I believe, the choice is this: the iPhone OS train is leaving the station in a big way with the iPad; much more so than when it was just for smartphones. I have to ask myself if there's a train that I would rather be on. I don't see one right now, and I don't see one coming down the track.