Our little two man company just got back from our second trip to attend Seattle Xcoders. Once again, we had great conversations with friends and developers there. Among ourselves on the way there and back, we talked about many hopes and ideas for our company’s future. We discussed the temptation to let overlofty ideals about how software “should be” hamper the smaller goals that must first be achieved along the way. And we imagined ourselves writing great software that helps people do great things, built on top of a great platform.
Then we came back to this bad news. Apple have decided not to reward yet another developer’s hard work, this time on a very legitimate iPhone application. When the iPhone developer’s kit was announced, developers were warned that certain limitations would be enforced — Apple wouldn’t allow apps that were (for example) malicious, violated users’ privacy, “illegal” and other such things to be sold. This generated some immediate speculation about how Apple would use this power they’d reserved. After months of having to work under an NDA that would forbid developers from learning this new operating system as a community, now comes this confirmation of a once-latent fear. It’s a tough struggle to turn ideas, time, money and other limited resources into a product that will improve user’s lives. Now Apple are using their control in a way that makes the expected return on this investment even lower, especially for competitors of Apple or Apple’s partners. They’ve set up a game where they are the only ones who can’t lose, unless customers and third party developers stop playing.
Already one talented developer has announced that he will not be writing any more iPhone applications until the rules are made clear to all contestants and the referees are no longer hidden behind one-way glass. Apple claim they are still “processing” our application into this Secret Sharecropper Society. Should we email them and tell them not to bother, that we don’t want any share in this? If we believe Apple’s market is unnecessarily risky for us (it is) and if we believe Apple’s censorship will hurt our customers (it will) and if we believe this kind of human-centralized control will end up harming everyone everywhere (it may) — if we believe all that — is it hypocritical of us to still want to make iPhone software?
Worse, it is also Apple who control the equally amazing desktop platform for which we have been writing software since before January. What if this is also the future Apple intend for Mac development? Will we be legally obligated to learn and grow alone and leave others to do the same? Will we be unable to properly test our code in real world conditions? Will we have no choice but to give a cut of all our revenue to yet another bureaucracy that thinks it knows what’s best? And after all that, will we occasionally have the freedom to sell our work simply taken away? If so, we’re making a very bad investment.
What should we do? In a number of countries, the World Wide Web still has many of the freedoms and opportunities that the Wild Wild West is rumored to have once held. But just as many covered wagons never made it, and the ones that did learned to do without the modern conveniences they once enjoyed, we like the comfort of the desktop and our software is better for having the plumbing and wiring a web cabin just doesn’t provide. If we stay on Apple’s good side, we might be able to make a lot of money. And except for the ideals we’d have to disregard, it would be honest money too.
The first version of our software will not do all we think it should do for our paying customers. We don’t intend to rip anybody off, and it’s not because we disrespect our users. It’s because we are learning, at least with software development, that sometimes it is impossible to get to where we want to be without making some practical compromises along the way. We’ll always try to avoid doing things the wrong way, but sometimes we don’t yet have the ability to do them the best way either. I wonder if more of life — or at least this business struggle we’ve found ourselves a part of — I wonder if it’s okay to invest in a system we don’t fully agree with, at least until we have the opportunity to trade in for something better? Our company would be grateful for your advocacy to the one who is really in control on our behalf, and I would appreciate reading your thoughts about these “compromises” as well.