Apple channels Google, Microsoft to attract developers

Apple wants to convince developers that it is a paragon of openness to attract developers, but it will need more persuasive arguments to beat Android.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Is Apple joining the "Don't be evil" brigade?

I can't help but ask after reading Apple's attack on Adobe's Flash for being "closed and proprietary," while dressing itself up as the openness prom queen because of its support for HTML5, JavaScript, and other industry standards.

Flash may be closed and proprietary, but Apple is hardly the patron saint of openness. Nor has it ever seemed to care much about pretending to be anything other than religiously devoted to a beautiful consumer experience, regardless of open standards, open source, open anything.

What has changed? Developers. Lots of them.

Apple is seeing the "light of openness" now that it increasingly must cater to external developers. For years Apple was able to live within its shell, serving a narrow world of devoted consumers and a very limited circle of developers.

No more. With the iPhone, Apple hit the developer mainstream, and has had some growing pains getting comfortable with that audience, most recently with its increasingly restrictive developer agreement.

Apple has a tough sell for developers over the long term, particularly as it faces open alternatives in its various markets, including Google Android. Developers are attracted to the iPhone's sales volume, but the trajectory of the company may make it increasingly harder to work with the company, a proprietary trajectory ZDNet's Tom Foremski describes well:

Since the introduction of the iPod, iPhone, and now the iPad, Apple is becoming less and less open, is using fewer standard components and chips, and far fewer Internet technologies common to Mac/PC desktop and laptop systems.

The iPhone and iPad, for example, don't support common Internet platforms such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. That means you cannot watch streaming video from Hulu, or Netflix.

And while iPhone chips are available from other manufacturers, the iPad runs only on the A4 processor--an Apple designed chip that no one else can buy.

This was OK when Apple was the most open smartphone game in town (RIM's BlackBerry was hardly a paragon of openness), but it's a tough sell with Google on the scene. Google Android, for all its problems and criticisms, has successfully attracted a host of applications recently through a more open approach, jumping from 6,000 to 25,000 applications in 2010 alone.

Apple may be its own best friend...and worst enemy.

Or, as Redmonk analyst James Governor puts it, "[The] company doing [the] most to grow the Android app base is Apple. The new terms of service are AWESOME for the Android team...."

It's not that Apple needs to open everything up to compete. But it does need to present a more credible argument than random smears against competitors for being proprietary. After all, let's be clear: None of these companies is open. Or closed. Not Apple. Not Adobe. Not Google. Each employs a hybrid approach, as CNET's Stephen Shankland points out. Each includes plenty of openness, and plenty of "closed and proprietary" technology and business practices.

That's the world we live in.

That's why, as Shankland writes, we (and particularly developers) should be wary of any vendor bearing gifts of openness:

In general, be very cautious when you hear any computing company wrapping itself in the flag of openness as it promotes its products. There are different kinds--open interfaces, open source, and open standards, for example.

Apple's reality distortion field afflicts us all at some point: it just makes beautiful technology. But developers aren't so easily swayed, including Apple's pot-calling-the-kettle-black moment with Adobe. Some won't care. Others, like Mozilla's Chris Blizzard, will.

Apple needs to figure out its developer story, one complicated by Google's surge into the smartphone market. I doubt we'll see Steve Jobs sweating to the Steve Ballmer beat, but Apple does need to up the openness quotient in its developer outreach, and soon.