Apple's tablet: It's all about developers

Apple and Google are increasingly competing for the hearts and minds of developers, and Apple's tablet threatens to undermine Android growth by changing the rules of engagement.

Never have developers mattered more. As Apple readies its tablet announcement party for later Wednesday morning, the big question remaining is whether developers will join, or whether they'll join Google's Android and Chrome initiatives.

It's Apple vs. Google. And it's all about developers.

Microsoft has ruled the software market for decades because it won the hearts and minds of developers. But Microsoft has been slipping lately, and Apple has eagerly taken its place. Despite some early fits and starts, Apple has consistently given developers ways to make piles of cash, even as a global marketplace for mobile applications has expanded.

Developers have returned the favor by making mountains of applications. Consumers, in turn, buy into this rich application ecosystem. And so the virtuous circle feeds itself.

Or will, unless Google can intervene. Google isn't reported to be building a tablet. At least, not yet.

But that's largely because Google's strategy is to allow its hardware partners to build Android-based devices like tablets, Netbooks, smartphones, etc. CES was filled with them.

The strategy seems to be working, with IDC projecting Android to grow by a 150.4-percent compound annual growth rate through 2013, reaching 68 million units shipped that year.

Importantly, Google's strategy is very different from Apple's. Apple has set up an excellent, but very closed, developer sandbox where Apple retains complete control. Google's strategy depends heavily on open source , giving developers freedom, flexibility, and a paycheck at the end of the process.

Apple, however, could spoil this strategy. As Gartner's Brian Prentice reasons, Apple may be changing the rules of developer engagement just as Google starts to close the gap:

Rather than focus strictly on the addressable market for developers what about the addressable market of developers....

[H]earkening back to the 80s again, what if Apple, either today or some point in the future, is able to resurface HyperCard. Not 1980's HyperCard. But a new millennium iteration of it.

If Apple can pull something like this off...there is the potential for them to bind an enormous new army of next-generation consumer-developers to their proprietary platform.
--Brian Prentice, Gartner
Something that creates the same simple application construction and rich web metaphors but adds a gamut of social web capabilities. Something that leverages the simple AppleScript - a technology which has its heritage in HyperCard.

Doing so would massively increase the number of people that can create mobile applications and, by extension, create a new market for the more traditional developers to create widgets and components for this new class of developer - all available at the iTunes Store.

If Apple can pull something like this off [then] there is the potential for them to bind an enormous new army of next-generation consumer-developers to their proprietary platform. And that would be an outcome advocates of open source should ponder over long and hard.

In other words, what if Apple moves the goalposts? Apple could pull a Microsoft, making development much easier, while keeping the resulting applications safely entrenched in iTunes/the App Store.

Apple's advantage with the tablet is that developers already know how to write iPhone applications. It could be that writing specialized applications for the tablet won't be worth the bother, but it's likely that Apple learned enough with its iPhone experience to ensure developers will get on board the tablet train, too.

All of which could spoil Google's developer party, and end up crimping Android's growth just as it was set to explode. How will Google respond? How would you?

About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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