I’ve been spending a ton of time in the mobile world lately, mostly on behalf of Founders Co-op portfolio companies AppStoreHQ and Urban Airship, and the deeper I get in the mobile ecosystem, the more perplexed I am by Apple and Google’s behavior toward the iPhone and Android developer communities.
With iPhone (the high-end pioneer) and Android (the democratic fast-follower), Apple and Google have unlocked an entirely new vector for mobile software innovation, and they deserve praise, admiration (and their current lofty market caps) for doing so. But their snazzy platforms aren’t worth shit without the staggering volume of useful, creative and just plain fun apps that 3rd-party developers keep building for them. And yet both companies – each in their own way – continue to kick sand in the faces of the very folks who make their mobile platforms so great.
As a web entrepreneur-turned-investor, I’m absolutely convinced that the most exciting innovation and value creation in the global economy is coming from software entrepreneurs: small teams of crazy, passionate hackers that can make magic with their minds. Apple and Google were built by hacker-entrepreneurs, which makes their tone-deaf handling of the mobile developer community all the more surprising.
Let’s start with Apple:
Beginning with the iPod, then iPhone, and now even more transparently with iPad, Apple is primarily focused on extending their power over established media players – record labels, TV and movie studios, print publishers (as well as the ad agencies who help monetize all this premium content). The company seemed genuinely surprised by the initial success of indie app developers on the iPhone platform, and with a few notable exceptions (mostly top-grossing apps and a lucky few hand-picked to boost credibility in selected target markets), has treated their indie supporters with a capricious mix of indifference and open hostility.
Each annual OS upgrade has included new restrictions on app developers and the companies that support them, all with the intent of further securing Apple’s control over the content and monetization in their ecosystem. The iOS4 restrictions on (among other things) 3rd-party analytics, cross-platform development frameworks and non-Apple monetization platforms are just the latest and most egregious example, with the steady drip of app approval issues and outright bans offering daily evidence of Apple’s real opinion of the indie community.
All of this is completely within Apple’s rights as a profit-maximizing entity, but I’m not convinced it’s in their long-term self-interest. The aging media behemoths that Apple is so focusing on “serving” (a.k.a. harvesting) are on a fast train to insolvency, mostly thanks to the Internet and all the pesky software and content entrepreneurs that Apple so disdains. The company is executing their current media-focused strategy brilliantly, but they’re leaving a gaping hole for their arch-nemesis…
Google’s Android platform has exceeded all expectations for global adoption, as carriers and handset makers terrified by the Apple juggernaut run to Google’s relatively more open platform as lifeline to maintaining (temporary) relevance among consumers and businesses gone wild for the smartphone experience. And Google has poured on the juice for their enterprise partners, rapidly releasing OS upgrades and subsidizing reference hardware designs like the Droid and Nexus One to demonstrate the promise of the platform. The almost-giddy tone of Google’s recent developer conference revealed just how pleased the company is with Android’s remarkable progress, and the platform currently looks like the only real threat to Apple’s global dominance.
All of which makes it even more puzzling why Google isn’t doing more to deliver value to the Android developer community. Yes, they’re handing out free Android smartphones to any developer with a pulse, and using cash and goodies to lure proven winners over from the iPhone platform. But what developers care about most is seeing their work in the hands of as many users as possible, and Google’s efforts on that front are surprisingly lame. The company has a quasi-religious opposition to desktop software, meaning they’re unwilling to offer a direct competitor to Apple’s iTunes as an Android software and media management console. They’ve also failed to create a competent webstore for Android apps, forcing all app discovery into the very basic on-device Android Market experience. Finally, the company has been slow to expand app payment options – limiting most paid apps to U.S.-only distribution. All of this has artificially suppressed the market for Android apps, allowing Apple to remain the preferred platform for mobile developers based purely on distribution and monetization advantages (and not the purported “technical superiority” or “platform fragmentation” issues touted by the fanboy community).
So what happens next?
While neither Apple nor Google has distinguished themselves in terms of developer relations, my money is on Google as the ultimate winner in this space. Apple’s ratcheting lockdown of iOS is steadily wearing down the patience and passion of all but the most rabid iPhone OS purists, and Google’s meteoric rise and relatively looser atmosphere will continue to lure the most entrepreneurially-minded developers, even if the company’s official support remains lackluster. If Google wakes up to this opportunity and acts more aggressively to unblock the current distribution and earning constraints on Android developers, all bets are off on how quickly they can replace iOS as the developers platform of choice.