Ooh that Awful App Store

Featured Apps for the Blackberry Storm (yes, the icons are MIA)
Featured Apps for the Blackberry Storm (yes, the icons are MIA) ... all twenty-or-so of them (apparently that qualifies as "plenty" for purposes of their TV commercials). I tried counting them, but each is mentioned several times making it a bit of an exercise in tedium.

Developer Angst

So <insert slightly famous developer’s name here> has given up on App Store development because Apple is <insert bad thing here>.

While there’s no question Apple could do a better job of handling App Store approvals (actually, there is some question: they’ve approved 100,000+ apps in 18 months or so, and that’s not counting version updates — it just possibly might be hard to do that job flawlessly), most of Apple’s problems stem from the iPhone being so popular and Apple not being bastards about (a) accepting third party developers, and (b) scaring developers silent.

Nintendo is (a) far harder, and (b) more expensive to get a dev license for, and (c) has far nastier contractual clauses for shutting up developers (and of course fewer developers to keep shut up), but we hardly see anyone wailing about how terrible it is to develop for Nintendo platforms. Meanwhile the Wii and DS are pretty much starving for compelling titles and the App Store has an embarrassment of riches. Facebook’s “walled garden” is a gigantic system for selling your personal information to advertisers and no-one seems to be too cut up about it.

I’m sure it’s momentarily gratifying for <slightly famous developer> to blog about how <insert bad thing here> Apple is, depart the platform in a huff, and actually have people pay attention to their little tantrum, but in the end it doesn’t matter a hill of beans.

I suspect that developer frustration with other platforms is actually as high or higher than with the iPhone, but it doesn’t get much coverage. After all, who cares?

Market Share

Depending on whether the analyst you read is long on Apple, the iPhone’s market share is either growing like crazy or dropping further behind RIM’s (both are in fact true). The fact is that the iPhone’s market share is only slightly relevant, just as Apple’s market share for Macs isn’t the whole picture.

Current Blackberry Model Screen Specs
Blackberry Model Screen Specs
8300 320×240
8500 320×240
8900 480×360
9000 (Bold) 480×320
9700 480×360
Storm 360×480 (portrait)
Tour 480×360
Pearl Flip 240×320 (portrait)
Pearl 240×260 (portrait)
8800 320×240
This is how Blackberry’s current 20.6% or so of the market breaks down for screen resolution (kind of critical for game developers, say). Then there’s CPU, memory, etc. This is why there’s “plenty” of apps on that web page, I guess. Of course it was different last quarter. Source blackberry.com

First of all, the iPhone represents a single platform you can target with one code base by hitting a compile button, and that platform encompasses three major versions of the iPhone, two versions of the iPod Touch, and — wait for it — future versions of the same product lines and new products we haven’t heard about. I say this confidently with no special knowledge of Apple’s plans because Apple isn’t stupid. Indeed Apple is so not stupid that they’ve changed their accounting and reporting rules simply so they can push OS upgrades for free to keep the platform as monolithic as possible.

(The $29 upgrade price for Snow Leopard may actually be Apple trying to increase the effective size of the Mac platform by increasing upgrade rates the way free/cheap iPhone/iPod Touch upgrades have worked for that platform.)

This means that Apple’s installed base of iPhones and iPod Touches represents one single huge and growing market for App developers. If you’re an Android, Blackberry, or Windows Mobile developer not only is your “market share” actually sliced into a bunch of varyingly interoperable pieces, but you’ve got no culture of buying and trying apps, and no history of upgrading phones to a common platform after release. (I didn’t lump Palm in there because it’s just possible — given the takeover of engineering by ex-Apple folk — that they’re not so stupid as to slice and dice their platform moving forward.) If you’re targeting this year’s Blackberry 8xxx then your market slice is only going to shrink as Blackberry switches to selling different phones with random screen resolutions, cpus, RAM, etc. and users switch to new phones.

Post Script

CNN has a story about Android platform differences (three OS versions, firmware differences, etc.) making life difficult for developers.

Meanwhile, Ray Ozzie is saying that the number of apps available on a given mobile platform is irrelevant because “Mobile apps require very little development, so it’s much easier to bring them onto every platform”. (Recall that Ray Ozzie’s chief claim to fame is Lotus Notes — make of that what you will.)

A fellow named Russ Beattie (who incidentally works for Nokia) provides concrete examples of just how fragmented the Android market is right now. (The title of his blog entry is “Android is splintering, just not how you think it is” — I don’t think I’m the “you” he’s referring to, since the fragmentation he describes is exactly what I’m talking about.)

Tim Bray dismisses all these concerns:

I’m pretty sure anybody who’s been to the mat with the Android APIs shares my unconcern. First of all, a high proportion of most apps is just lists of things to read and poke at; another high proportion of Android apps are decorated Google maps and camera views. I bet most of those will Just Work on pretty well any device out there. If you’re using elaborately graphical screens you could do that in such a way as to be broken by a different screen shape, but it seems to me that with just a little work you can keep that from happening.

So, basically the problems won’t affect most apps because their functionality is trivial, and fixing other problems requires “just a little work”. So I can build an app for one particular Android handset — let’s say whichever seems most popular right now — and hit, say, 25% of the Android market (a 25% which is likely to fade away as some other “flavor of the month” phone is released), and then with “a little work” deal with the other little bits and bobs, or I can just develop an iPhone / iTouch / iTheNextThing app (and sell 400x as many copies).

Let me just dwell on the “little work” thing for a moment. Fitting a UI into 480×320 pixels or so is no trivial matter — unless you simply don’t give a damn. Chances are you sweat over every pixel. Now, trying to provide an equally good experience at 320×400 and 480×360 and so on is going to drive you nuts. Again, it won’t be a problem if you don’t give a damn. So, what kind of app developers will live in Android-land? I guess the kind who develop “lists of things to read and poke at” and “decorated Google maps and camera views”.

Most of his readers disagree strongly, e.g.:

I had the “oh, whatever, just make a fluid layout” attitude also, and then I was struck down by reality. It was worse than I imagined.