Archive for July 2012


Let’s Face It Folks: iOS is Not a Strategy

A recent blog post by PhobosLab posted to Hacker News titled “What the Fucking Fuck, Apple?” (before the posted link was renamed to a tamer ‘Apple ignores but report’) sparked yet another furious debate about Apple’s platform.

The discussion began quickly and all the standard players were out. First were the sympathizers. Many others have also submitted bugs ultimately closed as duplicates or outright ignored. Others have been burned by the platform, the app store, or the approval process in various ways.

Quick to the fight were the realists. “This is capitalism folks”, “work around it”, “nothing is perfect”, “try getting a bug fixed in free software” all showed up right on time. There is no denying any of these arguments.

Also in the fray were people calling foul and over-reaction on part of the author. Others were attempting to mitigate by offering great advice based from experience. There was your essential dash of snark, and filling the cracks were the pedantic ramblings, side conversations and tangents that inevitably follow popular flame wars.

Now, I have a lot of respect for PhobosLab. I played BioLab Disaster the first time I stumbled on it, probably at Hacker News. I love what they’ve done for gaming in open and standard technologies. Web gaming interests me enough that at one point I built an online gaming community with my own custom web games (using Java at the time). I have nothing but good things to say about what I see coming out of this space.

Placed into the conversation was my two cents, and it quickly floated to the top which surprised me a little:

You’re telling me Apple is unresponsive to support requests from their developer ecosystem? Really? Get out of town! I don’t believe it.

Despite all of the rightful moaning of iOS developers, for some reason they continue to flock to the Apple platform. Apple will continue to treat their developers like second class citizens until there is a financial incentive to do otherwise. Right now, when one pissed off developer leaves or goes bankrupt because their app was yanked from the store or wasn’t approved for some BS reason, 50 developers replace him.

This comment was less directed towards the author at PhobosLab and more of a textual embodiment of my almost physical exasperation for the iOS platform discussion altogether. It seems to be resonating across the community now as well.

The iOS platform posts on Hacker News are legion. Between fanboy fanfare, iOS update previews, app store algorithm updates, marketing and cross-promotion data analysis, price-point A/B testing, icon design, app store rejection stories, stolen content, manipulating app store reviews, Show HN posts, and your occasional success posts every aspect of this story has a horse and each one of those horses have been dead for a while. Shoot, even I had a story where I followed the gold rush without thinking clearly.

After all this coverage I’d think people would get tired and adjust their expectations. I’m baffled how these things continue to get to the front page. (Two f-bombs seem to help.) It’s been at least four years and the trend is pretty clear folks: iOS is not a strategy.

Making something completely clear, I don’t believe PhobosLab made this mistake. Quite the contrary. An HTML5 strategy is the clearest way to avoid getting dragged into iOS or Android development.

Frankly that is probably why the author had such vitriol to spew towards Apple in the first place. Here is a guy that has gone out of his way to get out of Apple’s way. Yet somehow he is still dealing with a bug that is preventing the player from running and jumping.

What PhobosLab and other strong web technology advocates understand is that if you control the delivery of your product, you are your own king and you answer to no one.

The strategic mistakes and resulting community confusion seemed to begin when iPhone hype mixed with the excitement of the first competent mobile platform. Always available, portable form factor, continuous connectivity, and impressive hardware. Sign me the fuck up, right?

The problem begins when developers attracted to the platform see it as a solution to their problems. Its like a moth to a zapper, an addict to his drugs. The stages are rather simple.

Emotional Dependence

This stage is when a developer is experimenting and reaches early success. They love the app store because of its ‘easy’ deployment. They don’t have to run a web-server. They don’t have to deal with charging credit cards. Product support is mostly optional. The app store is the largest portion of the marketing that matters, and there is always a steady inflow of captive eyeballs to turn into customers by luring them in with a professionally commissioned app icon. The app even turns some promising coin initially by being in the new section, getting featured by Apple, or reviewed on a popular blog.

Mental Dependence

With the wind under his/her wings, the now fully indoctrinated developer starts investing more resources. For larger operations, this usually means building a larger team, hiring designers and doing some true marketing, expanding to other platforms, and eventually broadening product strategy, mindshare, and brand.

For the rest, it means expending personal energy to extract as much value out of the platform as possible. Enter price experimentation, app-stamping™ (the practice of producing a large number of very similar apps to gain volume horizontally in a space while reducing development overhead on individual apps), cross-promotion techniques, time-consuming customer satisfaction quests and feature enhancements, etc. The activity doesn’t really matter as long as its contributing to becoming an iOS App Store Master.

Physical Dependence

Full investment wears thin. The high from the initial post-launch boost is long gone. Frustration replaces jubilance. Blog posts with shaky results, learned lessons, and a positive outlook for the future are replaced with furious rage, confusion, flying spittle, and a visit from the Android bandwagon to pick up any new passengers.

Like a gambler down on his luck the developer wraps up their memior with a retrospective and tries to learn something from it all. Well, that or they continue the delusion and starve. Continue and starve they do.

Back in 2008 my roommate was laid off from an iPhone game company when a couple of their projects were rejected from the app store and they couldn’t afford to continue paying all the developers. Instead of getting another job, he moved back in with his parents and proceeded to collect unemployment for the next 8 months whilst app-stamping until he finally gave up and got another full time position.

This may just be a cute analogy but the point still stands: it is very difficult to grow a business when you do not control your product. When you depend on another company to “get around” to reviewing your flagship product so you can get it in front of paying customers you are in deep doo-doo.

Does this mean “iOS is dead”? Am I teeing up for a controversial blanket statement to spark a karma-laden flame war? While I love a good nerd fight as much as the next guy, that’s not what I’m saying at all.

iOS is great for accessing a large population of the mobile market. However success means combining iOS presence with other products or services as a larger more hollistic strategy. An iOS app can even be the damn cereal, but its still “part of a complete breakfast.”

If you start on iOS, the story seems to be grow or die. AngryBirds became a cultural phenomenon, but only after leveraging initial iOS success into multiple platform ports, a cartoon show and merchandizing.

Now of course feeding yourself and your family from the app store is not impossible. If you don’t want to work for the ‘man’, good for you. At this point however the sob stories and sympathy should dry up because its clear what you’re buying when you get your $100 license, your 200 beta users, and 70% of your revenue.

iOS is not a strategy. Is a tool. A tactic. A way to access customers. PhobosLab knows this and side-stepped the subject entirely by striving to deliver the most native experience one can with open web technologies. Success in this arena is a death threat for any mobile platform and software provider.

Is there any wonder why no one at Apple is rushing to fix this?

Join the discussion on Hacker News.