Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror has an interesting post today about being a developer for Apple’s ecosystem. We’ll leave aside for now the fact that Jeff isn’t and has never been an Apple developer and is, in fact, a strong proponent of Microsoft’s developer stack. Despite that flaw, I usually enjoy reading Coding Horror. I think Jeff’s a smart guy with a lot to offer the world in terms of insight about software development.
Jeff’s premise today is that third party Apple developers “serve at the pleasure of the king”, which is absolutely true. But, he finishes his post by saying he would never develop for Apple’s app stores because of the chance of “being thrown under a bus” by Apple. Fair enough, we all have different tolerance levels for things, and his assumption here is essentially correct. Apple developers run a risk of having Apple compete directly with us if our product is successful enough. It happens, perhaps, to .01% of us, but it does happen.
I want to run with Jeff’s metaphor a bit, but first, I need to address a couple of points in his article.
The first point I want to talk about is his claim that if Microsoft were to ever do something as audacious as release a product with the same features as one of their third party developers
…developers would be screaming bloody murder and rioting in the, er, blogs and web forums.
Wait… what? Excuse me? What the hell kind of fantasy world does one have to live in to think that Microsoft doesn’t, wouldn’t, and hasn’t competed with their own third-party developers. Microsoft practically made a sport of it in the nineties, and has continued to do it since then, albeit less obnoxiously. I mean, have we forgotten that Microsoft was convicted by both the US and the EU of abusing their monopoly power to compete unfairly. Microsoft used to routinely use their market power to put smaller software companies out of business in order to gain control of a particular niche of the software industry.
And what were the third party Microsoft developers doing back then? Screaming bloody murder?
They were defending Microsoft, and understandably so. The hand that feeds and all that. Those developers knew that being assimilated by Microsoft, or being unfairly competed against by Microsoft, were risks of doing business in that particular market and they deemed it worth the risk, much the way that iOS developers do today with Apple.
The second point that I think needs to be made is Atwood’s implied assumption that because Marco Arment isn’t up in arms over Safari’s Reading List feature (which duplicates many of Instapaper’s features), and isn’t ranting to anybody who will listen, that it means he’s “a loyal subject of the king”. The implication being that Marco will put up with any treatment that Apple chooses to dish out, no matter how unfair, because he’s a good whipping boy.
Which is a completely inaccurate characterization.
I don’t know Marco personally, but he’s one of the very few people I follow on the Internet who has consistently come across like a grown-up. Marco knew that getting sherlocked was a risk he faced by participating in Apple’s ecosystem and decided that it was worth the risk. When that risk turned into reality, he accepted the consequences like a grown up. Anyone who could condemn a man for acting maturely should be called out for it, and that’s exactly what Jeff is doing here. Marco’s response to the Reading List feature was nothing less than admirable.
Now, back to Jeff’s original metaphor of App ecosystems as countries. Let’s talk a little bit about the Apple Kingdom and also about the neighboring countries where, as a merchant, you might choose to peddle your wares if the King’s terms aren’t acceptable to you.
The Apple Kingdom
As Atwood noted, the Apple Kingdom is a monarchy, ruled by a King. By Jeff’s own admission, this king is a benign king, making decisions that he feels are best for his citizenry (consumers). He’s not perfect, but generally his decisions have served the populace well, and they are happy and prosperous. The Apple Kingdom has beautiful paved roads and a great system of railways, and state-run stores within walking distance of every single citizen in the country. The king has invited even the smallest merchants to use this infrastructure to sell goods in exchange for a small percentage of their income and so long as those merchants follow some guidelines that the King has set (and, admittedly, may periodically change) in order to make sure his citizens have a good experience in his stores.
The Apple Kingdom is large, and its citizens are fairly affluent. They regularly shop at the King’s stores and enjoy buying things there. Even tiny merchants are finding ways to make a comfortable living by being able to reach all the citizens of the country. Sure, not all merchants are succeeding. Even the best roads and stores aren’t going to make a poorly run business profitable or get people to buy spoiled produce, but the opportunity is there for any one who wishes to sell goods to do so with minimal overhead and startup costs.
The King, however, is also something of a merchant himself, and sometimes he will sell at his own stores. He doesn’t sell much, but when he does, sometimes he’s selling the same types of products as some of the merchants in his kingdom. The King, of course, doesn’t have to pay a percentage of his income to use the trains, roads, or stores, though. In even rarer cases, he’ll find a product in the stores he likes so much that he wants to provide it to all of his citizens for free, which basically makes it impossible for the original merchant to sell that product any longer.
Now, the Apple Kingdom is not the only country in the world, and the King doesn’t prevent anybody from emigrating or, in fact, even from exporting products to other countries. When deciding whether to pack up and go to another country, you need to make sure that your destination is going to be better than where you are now, so let’s look at these other countries.
AndroidistanThe largest neighboring country is an enormous country called Androidistan. Androidistan doesn’t have a king, but instead has dozens of local and municipal governments of varying types and quality. Their national system of government is probably best described as anarchy. Androidistan’s infrastructure varies greatly from province to province, with some roads and trains being free for anybody to use, and others requiring payment. Many provinces have their own stores where anybody can sell, but it’s hard to find what you want and the quality of the goods is generally kind of poor, though there are exceptional products if you’re willing to look for them. Unfortunately, there are also dangerous products sitting on the shelves as well. Poisoned produce and other deadly items disguised as legitimate goods.
Although there’s a lot of people in Androidistan, most of them don’t really like to buy goods at the government stores. They like to go in and make a meal of the free samples, but most don’t really like to actually buy anything and shoplifting is rampant in these stores. In fact, it’s often considerably easier to steal a product than to buy it legitimately because many of the stores aren’t very well run.
Most merchants have found they can’t make enough money selling their goods in Androidistan’s markets, so they’ve tried placing stickers on their goods advertising other products. Some merchants are making a really good living doing this, but many more aren’t even covering their costs.
On the other side of the Apple Kingdom is the relatively large country of Windowsland. Windowsland was once prosperous and has a huge amount of industry, but the country has been stagnating somewhat during the recent move toward smaller merchants. The government has recently started updating their infrastructure and building stores modeled after the ones in the Apple Kingdom. Windowsland has started a heavy advertising campaign trying to get merchants to sell their goods there.
Despite a great infrastructure and clean, brightly-lit stores, Windowsland has been having limited success in moving to the modern age of small merchants. Their large industry is still going strong, though, and in the long run, likely their stores will start to do a good business. Someday.
Oh, did we mention that Windowsland is also run by a King? He charges the same percent of income to use his railways, roads, and stores, but has placed fewer restrictions on his merchants in an attempt to lure them to sell in his country. Windowsland is a pleasant enough place, but there’s just not all that many people going into their stores yet.
The Democratic Republic of WebOS
This small country had huge potential, but recent mismanagement and ineptitude have basically shut the government down. There are a few citizens roaming the streets still in a bit of a daze, but most have left for better-run countries.
The Blackberry Oligarchy
The Blackberry Oligarchy, which actually has two kings, has gone in one generation from prosperous world power to third world country due to its inability to change its ways. Citizens have been leaving this country at an alarming rate and the remaining citizens have little faith that their pair of kings will be able to fix the problems given the frequent power outages and decaying infrastructure.
There are several other small outlying countries in MobileWorld, but these five pretty much cover the major markets that merchants would want to sell into.
Metaphors are easy to stretch to a point that they become meaningless, and I probably crossed the line a few paragraphs back, but the point is this: all ecosystems have their benefits and their downsides. In the old days of boxed software, instead of a single benign king, you had to deal with a dozen tyrants (software chains) to get your goods on the shelf, and they took more than half the sale price in exchange. If you didn’t want to deal with them, you could instead choose to work through a distributor who took another large chunk of your gross income in exchange for dealing with the tyrants on your behalf.
In every market at every time the risk of competition from a bigger, richer competitor has existed.
Part of Atwood’s argument is that even good Monarchies can go bad. Sure they can. So can good democracies. Let’s take what Apple might be someday off the table. We can’t fault people for not staging a revolution before there’s an actual reason to revolt.
Whether you do it explicitly or not, going into business means you’re accepting certain risks in order to obtain certain rewards. When bad things happen in business — when risks (anticipated or otherwise) turn into actual problems — acting like a twelve year-old and whining to the Internets doesn’t make things better. You buck up, find a way to fix it, or move on to something else.
So, yeah. We Apple developers serve at the pleasure of our King, and we know it. In exchange, we get access to millions of citizens who want to buy our products. A tiny percentage of us will end up competing directly with our king at times, but overall, life is pretty good in the Apple Kingdom for us merchants.
And, while we’d be glad to have you among our ranks, Jeff, you’re more than welcome to pack up your gear and move to a neighboring country if you think life would be better for you there.
©2008-2010 Jeff LaMarche.