It’s been widely reported that last week Apple made some changes to what tools developers can use to create applications for the iPhone and iPad. Blogger John Gruber also did a pretty solid analysis of why Apple did this: namely to keep developers developing applications that run primarily on the iPhone. I agree in the short-term this makes sense for them, but it seems like they’re forgetting some lessons.
What Apple is fighting is the commodification of a type of product, namely mobile phones and soon web tablets. This happened before to them: in the mid-1980s the Macintosh was quite innovative in terms of a user-friendliness, compared to the many of the personal computers available at the time. By the mid-1990s this had changed: Microsoft had created a “good enough” copy of the Mac experience with Windows and prices on hardware had fallen so that Apple’s products where quite expensive by comparison. The Mac continued to be popular in some circles, but had essentually became the Porsche that people bought calendars of before buying a Honda.
While the Porsche example is not perfect — people buy a high-end sports car for different reasons than they choose a phone — the challenges are not. Like Porsche, Apple has to protect its brand by demonstrating that there is a reason you are spending several hundred dollars on a phone. One of the ways it can do this by having lots of applications that are unique to the iPhone. One way to do this is make sure developers invest the time and money creating an iPhone application, and not spend that on writing for competing phones. The contract changes made last week which seem to be primarily aimed at Adobe’s Flash software are designed to ban technologies that would make it easier for developers to write applications that would run on several platforms, essentially making the iPhone’s offerings less unique. While I don’t anybody is going to be throwing their iPad into Boston harbour over this, it’s not going to help Apple’s image with developers any more than the ongoing issues with the less-than-transparent App Store approval process is doing. Short-term the effect is pretty nil, medium-term though it’s going to make the alternatives more attractive.
While the iPhone had become ubiquitous and in 2010 arguably still provides the best user experience of any smart-phone, its probably only a matter of time before someone, maybe Google, maybe RIM, maybe even Nokia come up with something good enough. Apple lost the PC market because it tried to be Porsche; Apple risks this happening again, but this time it’s not going to take 15 years.