Can Apple have its mushrooms and eat them too?

David Braue
6 October, 2008
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As you may or may not be aware, the Rudd government is currently managing a tender for the construction of a fibre-to-the-node national broadband network, submissions for which will be due in a few weeks and to which the government will contribute $4.7 billion.

One of the terms of participating in this tender is that bidders, which have each lodged $5 million bonds to secure the right to bid, are forbidden from speaking to each other, or to anybody else, about any detail of their bid whatsoever. This non-disclosure clause was, of course, imposed to ensure each bid stood as a whole in its own right and to prevent collusion between bidders and other unsavoury behaviour.

I mention this bid only because Apple’s own iPhone developer program was, until this week, held hostage by similar terms. Developers were basically prevented from saying anything at all about anything related to developing on the iPhone, ever, ad infinitum. When word of Apple’s habit of rejecting applications that compete with its own offerings got out, Apple expanded the scope of the NDA so developers were banned from discussing their rejections from Apple.

As a technology journalist, I’ve seen all sorts of NDAs, which are usually offered in exchange for early access to products for review or photography; the magazine you see in print today, after all, was likely finished several weeks ago so it makes sense that NDAs are necessary to enable proper coverage whilst protecting the integrity of the product’s newness.

But the situation with Apple’s developers is different: Apple doesn’t employ the developers it’s controlling, and it doesn’t own the products it is delivering through the App Store. Its continuing lack of transparency about the whole process makes the App Store great for hobbyists, but hardly useful for real development businesses trying to build a business around the supply of software – especially if there are potential civil repercussions should they dare to say anything at all about the development process.

As I mentioned in this week’s podcast, the whole atmosphere around Apple’s developer program is like that in the movie Fight Club. You know: “The first rule of fight club is: you don’t talk about fight club.  The second rule of fight club is – you don’t talk about fight club.”

This may sound all mysterious and exciting and all, but is it any way to build a symbiotic community of developers? Is it really necessary to force developers to redesign the wheel every time they go to code something for the iPhone? Does it benefit developers if they can’t communicate with each other about their projects, and work to design complementary applications or share best-practice ideas that will build truly great iPhone apps instead of just cool-looking ones?

The NDA couldn’t have helped relationships with third-party companies, who find themselves beholden to third-party restrictions just because they’re keen to tap into a great new mobile platform. But if they build iPhone versions of their applications, would they then be beholden to Apple’s NDA terms and indeterminate squabbles over ownership?

Little wonder that IBM decided to build its iNotes application for the iPhone as a hybrid approach that combines a small free App Store client and an online web app that is external to the iPhone itself; it’s not as tightly integrated, perhaps, but Apple can’t control what goes on at IBM’s side. decide whether users can get the app or not. Avaya did the same with its new iPhone soft-phone service, which uses a bit of sneakiness to live outside the iPhone itself. Expect this more and more as other big software vendors vote with their feet (and with their customers’ iPhone browsers).

Developers keep their mouths shut because they have to, but this is not how developers really work – and, with three decades of working with developers under its belt, Apple should have known better.

Thankfully, it has learned something. Whether motivated out of newfound altruism – or simply because the launch of Google’s Android gives developers another mobile platform to collaborate on – Apple’s move to relax the NDA was long overdue.

It’s not a concession to complete intellectual freedom, but this is Apple we’re talking about here – a company of almost unrivalled top-down structure, that doesn’t even tell its own publicity teams about new products until they hear Steve Jobs’ keynote speech.

Apple has thousands of eager iPhone developers out there, but it needs to continue loosening the reins enough that they feel empowered and not constrained by their love of the platform. I suspect we all have our own ideas about why Apple refuses to clarify the terms of developer policy that explicitly prevents competition with its own products, but that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, Apple has at least made a slight nod to its roots as a company that encourages thinking different [sic]. Let them play, let them share, let them build, and developers will make the iPhone the world’s leading mobile platform. Manage your developer relations according to mushroom theory (keep them in the dark and feed them BS), and they’ll eventually go looking for the light elsewhere.

What do you think? Is this the beginning of a kinder, gentler iPhone developer ecosystem? Share your thoughts in the AMW Forums.

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