Back in the early 80’s, when I was little, computers weren’t as fancy as they are now. It was the era of the c64, the Apple ][, and (in my family’s case) the TRS-80 Color Computer. These computers had, more or less, similar capabilities – both in hardware and in the software available to them. If you wanted games, you could usually find the “official” version and a couple shareware clones. The same went for productivity apps. I can remember several flavors of word processor applications and monthly budget apps (the latter of which was outrageously fun to use at age 7 — imagine allocating 78% of your income on “poop and poop-related expenses”). As the years passed, the keyboards became detachable, and the names on the fronts of our computers changed, one thing remained: you usually had a couple of options if you wanted to do something in particular. Less so in gaming, of course. (I still suffer the occasional flashback fromthe bloody DooM vs. RoTT wars on my BBS.)
How you got a copy of some of this off-brand software has changed a great deal over the years. The major retail chains would carry a lot of the name-brand software. The shareware and freeware was largely available through mail-order, or occasionally you could get a copy at a computer show or on a little rack at the back of a little dimly lit computer shop run by some guy who almost invariably had a Unix Beard. Granted, this wasn’t viewed as a terrible inconvenience back in those days. I mean, the mere act of loading anything from your tape drive or 5 1/4″ floppy took 5 minutes sometimes. This all changed with the BBS. Now, with the advent of the 300 baud modem, you could tie up your phone for forty-eight hours in the privacy of your own home to download a 100k program instead of driving an hour to the closest shop. As modem speeds got faster and BBSes proliferated in the late 80’s and early 90’s, though, the concept of buying a shareware floppy at a shop started to seem silly — you could usually get whatever you wanted in short order because your friendly local SysOp had found it somewhere and posted it for download. When the Internet showed up, suddenly we could get stuff directly from the developer. Ironically, you can walk into a Wal-Mart today and pick up a CD filled with hundreds of (usually 5-year-old) shareware apps, stocked on the same rack as the big-name software. People from all walks of life use computers today, and they have tons of choices and lots of places to get all the software they need. With the advent of the Internets, there’s never been a better time to be a small software developer. No longer do they have to worry about the overhead of sending physical media to their users. They can push automated updates to their software, adding functionality and patching bugs. All they have to do is get their name out there and make sure their software is good enough to keep the people who show up coming back.
That is, unless you’re an iPhone developer.
For those who haven’t been living under a rock the last several years, iPhone apps are only available through the App Store, Apple’s (literally) one-stop shop for all your iPhone needs. You don’t go to Best Buy to pick up a sweet new game for your iPhone. You can’t. It’s not to say that there is no third-party development for the iPhone. Apple loves touting the fact there are over a hundred thousand apps for the iPhone, especially when competitors show up. But they’ve always been weird and cryptic about what apps can get in and which can’t. And they have, on occasion, let apps in only to take them down later – never giving a reason. Just recently, they decided to arbitrarily cut, en masse, on the order of five thousand “sexy” apps from the App Store. Infuriatingly, some were left, like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit app and the Playboy app. Today, I read a report that Apple was trying to cut out “cookie-cutter” apps, which best I can tell means simple apps designed to show a single RSS feed for a company or some other simple function. Yes, it’s incredibly vague. That’s why it’s so maddening.
Strangely, it seems like Apple’s new and improved strategy is to go for fewer, better apps now. I don’t think the “sex” ban has anything to do with customer complaints about indecency at all. I think they’re suddenly horrified upon the realization that a large portion of their 100,000 apps utterly suck (as is the way with software) and Apple is basically the equivalent of one of those girls who refuses to admit she farts or poops until one fateful night three years into the relationship when finally the truth is revealed in the form of a startlingly violent F sharp, doing irreparable psychological damage and sparking demands that this incident never be spoken of again. This explains why big name “sexy” apps are staying around and all the little ones with slideshows of bikini pics are disappearing. It also explains why Safari doesn’t suddenly block all pornography. I don’t mind that they want to clean house so people can find great stuff easily. In fact, that would be quite nice. It’s just that there is no other means of getting anything in any other way (aside from jailbreaking your phone, which has its own set of hazards). If Apple had some other means of buying applications for the iPhone aside from the App Store, this wouldn’t even be an issue. They could impose all the weird restrictions they wanted in their store to further whatever company directives they chose, and everything would be just great. People wanting something else would just go to the nice little browser on their phone, and download whatever they wanted. Except, oh yeah, they can’t.
My problem with all this goes far beyond simple inconvenience as a user at not being able to purchase/download whatever programs I want whenever I want them from whomever I want. I am a programmer by trade, and I have been so for a decade. I currently work in-house doing web development, and this doesn’t affect me directly right now, but I have worked freelance to pay the bills before. It does not take a whole lot of effort to see how having an app denied from entry to (or worse, pulled from) the App Store is going to affect a small developer’s bottom line. Back in the early 80’s, one guy might write a game. Today’s game credits can go longer than movie credits, and development cycles can go years. Even for smaller apps with fewer people working on them, it’s still absolutely ridiculous that people can work for months and create a working product only to be given a vague, flat “no” — crushing any hope for income for their hard work. Nobody ever finds out specifically why. I find this an extremely inadequate means of feeding one’s family, and I utterly fail to see why anyone would voluntarily take this kind of risk. I guess the legend of the guy that wrote iShoot is pretty compelling.
I had a couple ideas that I wished Apple might do instead, so as to make the process more fair to developers – but I honestly can’t see them liking anything better than the “sit back and let everybody fight over the right to get into our good graces” plan. Fortunately, there’s some change coming down the pipe in the form of better competitors. Many devices using Android or Windows Phone 7 both have what it takes to match the iPhone’s features – if the apps can be found. I’m not naive enough to think one is going to simply rise up and crush the iPhone. I am, however, hoping they get popular enough to make Apple sweat enough to play nice. I currently want to give Adobe a hug for announcing AIR for Android. This is going to let a lot of developers quickly make a program once, and have it run on several different kinds of devices. I plan to write apps for my Droid just for the explicit purpose of my own personal “up yours” to Apple. The first app will be a “poop and poop-related expenses” tracking program with pictures of Slave Leia in a metal bikini integrated into all parts of the user interface.