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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
    Jerry Leichter, 21 Jul 2009 @ 4:26am

    Steve Jobs probably agrees with you!

    Apple has been extraordinarily clever about surfing the line between open and closed. Consider the history of the iPhone: Initially, it was a *completely* closed system; no user development at all. Then, it would support Web apps, but no native apps. Then it supported native apps, but only through an Apple-controlled app store. The app store wouldn't sell anything even mildly offensive - and now it has ratings and you can sell "mature" stuff, with a proper warning,

    Meanwhile, a secondary "unofficial" market in unrestricted apps for jail-broken phones develops, grows rapidly, and then slows considerably as the official market grows. Apple complains about jail-broken phones, but makes no serious attempt to block them. In fact, Apple seems to use the "unofficial" market as a way to gather intelligence about what people on the bleeding edge want to do with their phones, with no danger that problems with such apps will reflect badly on Apple.

    No one gets it right forever, but Apple has managed to stay at just the right point on the curve to maximize its income. Many millions of customers, so far, as happy with the app store as it exists. As their attitudes shift, Apple will likely shift, too.

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