06 June 2011 by Published in: iphone, rants 1 comment

Apple made a lot of announcements today, and it’s going to take a lot of time to digest all of it. I did want to comment on what some people perceive to be the large number of startups that Apple has “outdated” today.

Marco takes the right approach of basically saying that the pie for many of these features is going to get larger, not smaller, by Apple entering the market and doing the hard work of educating users. Many of these projects are niche apps today and will continue to be so–largely with or without Apple’s intervention.

Second, most good developers are against software patents (or at least our current patent system). The Lodsys story has brought this out particularly well. You can’t, on the one hand, say that software shouldn’t be patentable (or only highly innovative software should be patentable) and say, on the other hand, Apple is wrong to integrate features from existing native apps. That view is self-contradictory.

Third, everybody knows in advance the type of apps that Apple will end up integrating into their OS: apps that have mass market appeal and features that are technically easy to replicate. If you write an app that A) takes a couple of weeks to write and B) sells really well and has mass market appeal, you’re riding on Apple’s coattails, because the bulk of the real work for your app is being done by existing Apple APIs, not your own code, and the problem you’re solving is part of Apple’s failure to foresee a user problem, not some third party. You’re making money because Apple has left it on the table, not because you were brilliant enough to pick it up. You’re filling a functional gap. If you do something technically complicated that has mass market appeal, you will get bought, like Lala.com, and if you do something that has only niche appeal you’re not competing with Apple, so those sorts of apps are safe–it’s only the “fill in a hole in iOS” where the developers get rich for little work that are in danger, and it’s mostly luck that they had a good revenue stream in the first place, so it’s silly to call foul.

The flipside to this is that everybody knows the sort of apps that aren’t in any danger.

  • Niche apps. Apple is never, ever, ever, going to implement a feature for dentists. Or architects. Or mechanical engineers. Or lawyers. Or…
  • Technically complicated apps. You will get bought, like Siri or Lala.com, not replicated.
  • Social apps. In the wake of their spectacular failure with Ping, Apple has decided to do Twitter integration rather than build their own. It will be a long time before Apple gets social right, if they ever do.
  • Games. Although Apple has some incredible game developers, they’re mostly focused on things like making sure OpenGL and GameKit work as third-party developers expect. Games don’t really compete with one another to solve a single problem like non-game apps do, so it’s difficult to talk about games being mutually exclusive in any meaningful sense even if Apple was to release one.

The real problem is that writing apps for lawyers or dentists, while insanely profitable, is just boring. It’s more fun to write the 3000th Twitter client or some other mass-market, paste-some-APIs-together application. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that–just don’t expect Apple to acquire you if they can replicate you with two engineers in a month.

What’s funny is to watch this play out and hear people say how they will never, ever develop on iOS again and they don’t understand how anyone would ever develop anything remotely Apple-related ever. I think a total of three (or less) of the hundreds of passionate stands of principle I’ve seen in the last few years have actually made a blip on the radar of the iOS ecosystem. If you’re developing the type of app that gets steamrolled by Apple, you’re doing complicated work, because iOS is pretty hard. But on the scale of difficulty relative to other iOS apps, you’re doing relatively easy work, that is, work that any professional iOS developer who gets paid five or six figures could do. There are several hundred developers in your greater metropolitan area who could replicate any of the apps who’ve been steamrolled by Apple. So let’s not complain that your steamrolled application is the bastion of great and sacred ideas of our time.

But, I can’t imagine any reason why any developer in their right mind would see competing with all of that as anything more than a short-term prospect.

As a general trend (with a lot of specific outliers), the prospect of an application is in proportion to development effort. If it was short-term development, you should fully expect it to provide a short-term return.


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