I received a note from Andy Gilbertson, one of the developers behind Parallel Kingdom, a location-based mobile massively multiplayer (or MMO) game that uses your GPS location to place you in a virtual world atop the real world. The game seems like an obvious winner for the iPhone, but the team has been struggling to get it past Apple's app review policies.
Gilbertson's travails with the iPhone application acceptance process illustrates why Apple's gating of applications is a troubling reality for developers--and for consumers. And while it's understandable to have a gating mechanism in place, if Apple wants to remain at the top of the mobile application space, it so heavily dominates, the company needs to commit more resources to not just the application review process, but in communicating with developers. As of my last e-mail exchange with Gilbertson, Apple had not responded for more than six days. My call to App Store PR has gone unreturned for about 18 hours as of this post.
Apple's acceptance policies can be shockingly difficult to navigate, so much so that some have marveled at the fact that an ecosystem could build up at all.The fact that iPhone applications are written in Objective C, a previously uncommon programming language, is in and of itself a show-stopper for many developers, but that obviously hasn't stopped development.
Earlier today Ars Technica wrote about several prominent developer including Facebook's Joe Hewitt, Second Gear's Justin Williams, and longtime Mac software developer Rogue Amoeba, all of whom recently "decided that enough is enough" and that they would abandon iPhone development efforts. And while each cites different reasons, the underlying thread is that they've had enough of waiting for Apple to distribute their apps, an instantaneous effort on the Internet.
While restrictive or complex policies are unlikely to stop the iPhone juggernaut, they can be very painful reminders of what would happen if we regress 15 years to the unfortunate walled gardens of AOL. Tim O'Reilly reminded us of the risk of the closed Web recently, commenting that "anyone can put up a Web site, or launch a new Windows or Mac OS X or Linux application, without anyone's permission. But put an app onto the iPhone? That requires Apple's blessing."
It's unlikely that a few developers falling off of the iPhone train will have a dramatic effect on the growth of the market, but this kind of unhappiness can easily lead to a backlash. The big question is if another mobile platform can take the place of the iPhone.
Android has arguably the best chance, but it currently struggles due to immaturity of its own application ecosystem. Nonetheless, there is a huge revenue opportunity for an open-Web approach to mobile applications. It remains to be seen if Android can live up to the hype and not fall into the same trappings as the App Store. For all of Apple's sins in how they run that business, it's undeniable that it remains hugely successful.