Apple’s Mistake

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Paul Graham examines Apple’s mistake:

Their fundamental problem is that they don’t understand software.

They treat iPhone apps the way they treat the music they sell through iTunes. Apple is the channel; they own the user; if you want to reach users, you do it on their terms. The record labels agreed, reluctantly. But this model doesn’t work for software. It doesn’t work for an intermediary to own the user. The software business learned that in the early 1980s, when companies like VisiCorp showed that although the words “software” and “publisher” fit together, the underlying concepts don’t. Software isn’t like music or books. It’s too complicated for a third party to act as an intermediary between developer and user. And yet that’s what Apple is trying to be with the App Store: a software publisher. And a particularly overreaching one at that, with fussy tastes and a rigidly enforced house style.

If software publishing didn’t work in 1980, it works even less now that software development has evolved from a small number of big releases to a constant stream of small ones. But Apple doesn’t understand that either. Their model of product development derives from hardware. They work on something till they think it’s finished, then they release it. You have to do that with hardware, but because software is so easy to change, its design can benefit from evolution. The standard way to develop applications now is to launch fast and iterate. Which means it’s a disaster to have long, random delays each time you release a new version.

Apparently Apple’s attitude is that developers should be more careful when they submit a new version to the App Store. They would say that. But powerful as they are, they’re not powerful enough to turn back the evolution of technology. Programmers don’t use launch-fast-and-iterate out of laziness. They use it because it yields the best results. By obstructing that process, Apple is making them do bad work, and programmers hate that as much as Apple would.

How would Apple like it if when they discovered a serious bug in OS X, instead of releasing a software update immediately, they had to submit their code to an intermediary who sat on it for a month and then rejected it because it contained an icon they didn’t like?

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