April 9, 2010 Last Updated 2:41 pm

Apple’s new iPhone OS agreement has developers howling; publishers moving to mobile should take note

Warning, some of what follows may seem like something only of interest to programmers and developers, but it may (and I emphasis may) lead to issues for those publishers moving into mobile media.
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Apple yesterday previewed its new iPhone OS 4 to a small group of developers and press, as well as a large group of Internet viewers like myself. You can see the story about the event¬†here. In addition to revealing that Apple will bring multitasking to their iPhone and iPad, they also unveiled their new iAd platform which will bring Apple into the ad sales marketplace, as well as provide developers new tools for creating advertising for Apple’s mobile media products.

Later, after the event in Cupertino, developers were able to download the iPhone OS 4 SDK. It’s the changes to the developer agreement that has created a controversy and much discussion within the developer community. As John Gruber of Daring Fireball wrote, the agreement seems to prohibit the use of cross-compilers — those bits of code that allow a program to work on a platform other than the one it was originally written for. An example: a programmer creates a Flash ad but inserts code that allows the ad to be seen and interacted with in an environment where Flash does not work. (If someone has a better way to explain this, please let me know.)

The real world consequences of this, especially for publishers, is that Adobe’s Flash-to-iPhone compiler would be prohibited. In addition to Adobe, this might also effect companies like Appcelerator who have introduced its Titanium software as a way of developing native apps.

The reaction from the developer community has been negative, to say the least. There have been rumblings in the developer community in the past to what they have seen as Apple’s arbitrary way of approving apps. But mostly these voices have sounded like sour grapes as Apple’s iTunes store continued to grow — now containing over 180,000 apps, and over 1 billion downloads recorded.

So why is Apple doing this? How will this effect the publishing industry?

Some rather hysterical voices have immediately claimed that Apple is an evil company trying to force its platform onto poor developers who will now have to choose between writing apps for Apple products and writing for the larger market as a whole (Apple’s iPhone marketshare has grown tremendously, but the iPhone still only has a sliver of the total market).

There is no doubt that Apple is obsessed with the user experience. The last thing the company wants are apps written for one platform and ported over to the iPhone, giving iPhone users a less than perfect product — one where iPhone users complain that their apps do not run as well as on an Android phone, for instance.

The problem with taking this positions is two-fold: one, it is alienating the developers; and two, it does not guarantee quality — just look at all the garbage apps available on iTunes now.

“It’s so hard to reconcile my love for these beautiful devices on my desk with my hatred for the ugly words in that legal agreement,” developer Joe Hewitt tweeted last night. Later he added “Should I just shut up and be happy there won’t be any weird looking Adobe Air apps in the store?” (Hewitt was already upset with Apple having quit his Facebook iPhone app efforts late last year.)

That sums up the dilemma: in order to create a wonderful user experience, Apple wants all the apps to function well; but that may only make it harder to get developers to create for their platforms because they must do things a certain way.

Most Mac users who care about this sort of thing, understand Apple’s anti-Flash actions. Flash is just not a very good experience on a Mac, and a replacement (or improvement) is desperately needed. But can Apple really get away with trying to kill Flash, even Flash compilers, on its new products? Maybe. But Apple will take a hit at the same time as their image as an innovator competes with cries of “Apple is the new Microsoft” grow.

For publishers this could have consequences. For Wired magazine, it might have real world consequences, right now. Wired did not launch an app on April 3rd, to my surprise. The magazine has been working with Adobe to create a more interesting, interactive magazine. Until now, I’ve thought they may have delayed launching an app to coincide with a new issue, or to perfect their product. Now, it appears they may be stymied by Apple. As yet no word from Wired, though they are covering the controversy on their web site. (See the Wired demo and Adobe Air videos here.)

For most publishers the question they’ve asked third party vendors has been “will my app work well on the iPhone?” Developers have sold their services to publishers by bragging that they can provide mobile apps that will work on many platforms — that is, buy from us and we’ll have your magazine on the iPhone, Android and Blackberry immediately.

Now, a publisher needs to go one step further by asking more questions about development practices. Maybe this may not appear necessary, after all, if a vendor no longer can get their apps approved they would certainly have to change the way they compile their apps. But publishers shouldn’t be in the dark, either. Many publishers can talk for hours about paper stock, and recyclable ink. But ask them about programming for mobile media . . . well, call my vendor.

There are at least two lessons here. 1) for publishers, don’t take short cuts. Care about the user experience of your products, and make sure you won’t have your legs cut out for under you when a company like Apple changes the rules. 2) for Apple, the lesson will either be this is how monopolies work, or this is how companies go bad.

Apple’s timing in rolling out its new iPhone OS 4 is kind of interesting. They called the event in a hurry, and rather unexpectedly. The OS won’t be available to iPhone users until this Summer, and the iPad version until this Fall. Well, one reason may be that Adobe has scheduled an event for Monday of next week where they will roll out its CS5 suite of products. Those attending the event now have plenty of questions to ask Adobe.

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