From Closed To Open: iPhone App Developer Skepticism Highlights Platform Trajectory

from the closed-vs.-open dept

I've been getting into some interesting discussions with people lately concerning open vs. closed platforms -- especially in light of the supposed "success" of Apple's iPhone app store, which is a very closed platform. And the point that I've tried to make is that you have to understand the trajectories of these things over time. At any given time, it's never difficult to find a closed platform that is successful. In fact, I'd argue that if you are reshaping a market, often it helps to have a closed platform initially to drive that market in a useful direction -- though, this can really only be accomplished by someone visionary (Steve Jobs certainly counts). The question is how does this play out long term. And the answer is that you can't stay closed too long, or open solutions will catch up and surpass you. We've seen this pattern multiples times (closed AOL --> open internet?).

Where this gets trickier is that the open solutions are almost always substandard to the closed solutions initially. In some ways, this is by design. The closed solution is often much cleaner and slicker, and so it gets a lot of the initial use. But, overtime, the limitations of the closed solutions become increasingly clear, and as people bump up against those limits, frustrations increase, and more and more effort is put towards making the open solutions better -- even to the point that eventually they exceed the closed solution. It's a messy process, but the point where momentum shifts is often a subtle one, and the proprietors of the closed solution usually don't recognize it's a problem until way too late.

I believe that's the case with the App Store. The iPhone itself did an amazing job pushing the state of the mobile phone/portable computer market forward. There are some people who like to mock it as nothing special, but that's unfair. The device itself was a huge leap forward in demonstrating what a phone could be, and many others are just starting to grasp what this means more than two years after the original was introduced. That said, we're seeing more and more evidence concerning frustrations on the limits imposed by Apple's closed system, such as the arbitrary rejections of apps.

James points us to a worthwhile post from an iPhone developer, noting how the process is getting to the point where it's less and less worth it to develop for that platform. You have to put in a ton of work, and then you have to wait for quite a while just to get the app approved (or rejected), and the whole process is quite arbitrary. With that in mind, developers have a lot less certainty, and it shows a growing interest in other platforms.

To date, admittedly, such alternatives really haven't been very good. There are other app stores (some more open than others), but none has really been able to build up much traction yet on other devices. But there's a huge opportunity here if someone else can make this happen (or, if there were a way to standardize across some of the competitors) and start doing a better job serving both developers and consumers. The closed solution helps define the initial market -- but the open solution almost always wins in the long run.

Filed Under: app store, closed, developers, iphone, open, platforms
Companies: apple


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  1. identicon
    Joshua Jones, 21 Jul 2009 @ 6:23am

    Android FTW

    In the market of mobile phones, I have to say that the "Open" to be surpassing Apple's "Closed" is most likely to be the Android mobile OS. While it is obvious that adoption of Android phones has been slow in the US, it is picking up momentum all around the world, with something like 15+ Android phones being released by the end of the year. And some of these phones show a nice improvement in the form of hardware.

    Already, I would count my T-Mobile G1 as the iPhone's equal, but when customers on other networks are introduced to a wider variety of Android phones, an interesting and game-changing thing will likely occur - and this is mostly what Mike is talking about here.

    Developers will change sides.

    When it comes down to it, ignoring the quality of the apps themselves, the app store is nothing without developers. Right now, those iPhone developers are getting more and more of a bad taste from the general closed system that is the iPhone app store, but they stay there because that is where the customers are.

    That will change.

    Once there are more mobile users on more networks using phones - and netbooks, let's not forget those - running the Android OS, many of those developers will choose to spend their time working on apps that will actually make it to their respective market.

    At this point, I believe that even if Apple makes their development more open, it's still only a matter of time.

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