Thursday, June 3, 2010

iPhone and App Store Perception

Jason Snell:

I’m here to say to Apple that while I understand very well the reasons for the company’s walled-garden approach to native iPhone OS apps, the strengths of that approach have now been surpassed by the bad publicity and reputation that Apple and its products are now getting in the market as a whole.

Perceptions, once set, are hard to change. There are lots of straw men in the comments. Do people really think that the App Store is curating away the junk? Or that the OS itself doesn’t enforce a sandbox? It’s also strange to see so many suggestions that “the people have spoken” because Apple is selling lots of devices. The market also preferred Windows over Mac. One can succeed in business doing lots of things wrong if one gets a few key things right. Mistakes have a way of catching up to you eventually, though. I think Snell is right to look for leading indicators.

At D8:

Jobs first notes that Apple, by supporting HTML5, supports a completely open platform.

Ah, yes, they still offer developers the sweet solution.

At the iPhone OS 4.0 launch event, Steve Jobs had every opportunity to bat down the other major competitive claim Android has over the iPhone OS: the fact that third-party iPhone app development isn’t “open.” Instead, Jobs went on a rant about porn being available on Android and not on the iPhone.

I can’t tell you how disappointing that moment was for me. Perhaps Jobs believes what he said, but it’s a ridiculous claim. Setting aside the issue that people should really make decisions for themselves about what they want to do with their devices, and that the iPhone OS has parental controls that could be used to block adult content from appearing on kids’ devices, Jobs’ statement was also completely counterfactual.

He also wasn’t candid about the secret reasons that Apple rejects apps, insinuating that developers don’t follow the rules and lie about it. Much of the controversy over the App Store is due to Apple not sticking with the rules that it laid down. The developer agreement doesn’t forbid having a better mail app, better voice mail, or a better photo frame, and yet Apple found reasons to block them. It’s unfortunate that Mossberg and Swisher let Jobs spin so much. Why have a live interview if you won’t follow up to make sure that your questions are answered? I get that they want him to attend D9, but the value of a rare exclusive interview is lessened when the subject just repeats what’s already been said elsewhere. The truck analogy was clever, though.

13 Comments

"He also wasn’t candid about the secret reasons that Apple rejects apps, insinuating that developers don’t follow the rules and lie about it. Much of the controversy over the App Store is due to Apple not sticking with the rules that it laid down."

But, of course, the lack of firm rules and the lack of candidness is the exact special sauce here, from the Cupertino POV. There are no firm rules at a club as to who gets past the velvet rope. There is only the club's judgement as to whose presence benefits the club.

"The truck analogy was clever, though."

Rather dispiriting, if you care about the OS X platform, no?

I'd much prefer a sports car metaphor to a truck metaphor. Only msft is going to be in the truck market for the long haul. If Apple's not going to understand the sports car metaphor, then OS X is as good as EOL'ed.

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I’m here to say to Apple that while I understand very well the reasons for the company’s walled-garden approach to native iPhone OS apps, the strengths of that approach have now been surpassed by the bad publicity and reputation that Apple and its products are now getting in the market as a whole.

I assert Snell is not competent to make that judgment. Very big and very complex strategic decisions are being taken.

And time horizons matter. Cupertino's strategic logic definitely makes sense in the short and mid-terms. It's only when you look five or more years out that logic becomes questionable.

@Chucky If you’re selling a sedan, you don’t want to compare it to a sports car. You say that it gets better gas mileage and is more maneuverable than a truck.

I think it’s significant that someone of Snell’s stature is saying this. I have no idea whether he’s right. It may take five years to find out, but Apple should be considering the possible futures, too. What if the wager doesn’t work?

"but Apple should be considering the possible futures, too. What if the wager doesn’t work?"

Well, do you want to make up the Bring Back John Sculley T-shirts, or should I?

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In the short to medium-term, I think Cupertino's benefits heavily outweigh the downsides of some geeks being scared off the platform. The bill from that downside won't come due for a while.

Cupertino seems quite comfortable to re-run the Mac/Windows war game from the 80's. The internal assumption seems to be that a certain guy could have won that war the last time, had he been around, and will win this one.

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"If you’re selling a sedan, you don’t want to compare it to a sports car."

If the sports car costs three times as much as the sedan, then there is no problem in being proud of your sports cars and seeing their kickass performance as enhancing the appeal of your sedans.

But my fear is that Apple really does see OS X boxes as trucks, and not as sports cars.

Jason Snell

Chucky, I may not be competent to make that statement, but if I'm not, I suspect nobody outside of Apple is. So I guess we can all just agree that Apple obviously knows exactly what it's doing...

It might. Apple folks know their sales figures, they've got market research... they're paid to think about this stuff all day.

They may also know exactly how much the perception is hurting them, but have decided not to care because they have decided that the alternative is worse.

As for me, I have a tingly sensation on the back of my neck that what was once a debate for in-the-know tech types is now having some broader reach that will hurt Apple's reputation among consumers. And my fear is that this is one of those things that needs to be nipped in the bud, because by the time it's obviously a problem it'll be too late.

Presumably people at Apple are aware of all of this. They may or may not think it's a problem they should care about.

I agree that the App Store rules shouldn't change willy-nilly. But this is the first large-scale curated App Store and it's in a new Apple market, so it was foolish to expect that the rules wouldn't change as new, unexpected situations arose, and as strategies changed to deal with new market realities. First-time parents raising kids change, scrap, and refine rules over and over again.

As for the insinuation, do you have any evidence that what Jobs said was untrue? Jobs didn't say that was the only reason. He just gave one example.

By the way, one who listens to any corporate-speak must learn to read between the lines. Although what is said is usually true within its limited context, it will never be the whole truth. Even football coaches don't ever reveal the whole truth.

As for Jason's original thought, I don't see it as being a Top 5 or even Top 10 problem for the mainstream consumer. My informal survey of affluent but not Apple-obsessed iPhone owners shows no recognition of this issue. (I live in a Boston suburb which could compete for the most iPhones and SUVs per capita in the whole world). AT&T and battery life are still the dominant negatives by far. Even my Verizon/Sprint-connected Android-owning friends don't care. They're on those networks because AT&T provides poor or zero service in their homes.

A counter-issue that is gaining some discussion (so I put it at the bottom of the Top 10 list) is privacy and malware. For more, google "Dark Side Arises for Phone Apps" at wsj.com.

I think you can extend that even further. For the mainstream consumer, these issues don't even hot the top 100 list. They just want to buy stuff and have it work without needing a degree in engineering or science. The only people that are aware are the ones following tech press and/or blogs, which is a very small and insulated segment of the general populace.

Assuming that they do know, why would they ever care how much work it is for a developer to make an app? This does apply anywhere else.

And exactly how has any of the "mistakes" with Windows caught up with Microsoft? I see a company that's missing the mark on a market change that others are capitalizing on, not one that's having it's mistakes on Windows catch up with it.

@mark:
"so it was foolish to expect that the rules wouldn't change as new, unexpected situations arose, and as strategies changed to deal with new market realities"

That may be a fair way to describe things such as banning Flash cross-compiled apps. For Adobe to be releasing CS5 so shortly before OS 4 ships is quite worrying - it's unlikely that they'd do a major Flash update fast enough.

However, many of the lower profile changes have been done quietly and without any official announcements. Many of them have been ad-hoc and without apparent reason. Had Google not raised the issue loudly, would anybody have known that a Google Voice app was prohibited? What about that guy's widget type app?

They're not just reacting to changing things, they're throwing their weight around like they own the place (which they do, of course). They're not only acting for an optimal customer experience, they're acting for an optimal Apple business model. The former I can tolerate; the latter I am very, very unhappy with.

“As for the insinuation, do you have any evidence that what Jobs said was untrue? Jobs didn't say that was the only reason. He just gave one example.”

@Mark Jobs may be right that some developer somewhere lied about using private API, but this is certainly not the case in general. At the same time, Apple has blocked apps beacuse it thought they used private API, when in fact they didn’t. Likewise, Apple said that it learned from the political cartoon app, but even after accepting it they’ve rejected other apps that referred to public figures. So, bottom line, he’s giving specific examples that are not a representive picture of the truth. That’s certainly his right as an Apple spokesman, but it’s frustrating that there was nothing to balance his statements in the questioning or press coverage.

Reading between the lines at the way Jobs dismissed the concerns, I get the impression that he doesn’t take the issue very seriously. He says Apple is learning, but my sense is that overall developer trust in the approval process is declining.

@michael The issue is whether this will become an issue for the mainstream consumer. That’s why I spoke of leading indicators. One possible example is that an Android phone can be a mobile hotspot. iPhone OS 4.0 doesn’t have this feature, although a third-party app provided it years ago and was banned from the App Store.

Microsoft really let the Windows security issues get out of hand. That’s hurt their reputation. Another glaring mistake was halting development of Internet Explorer, and that’s led to them losing serious marketshare and control. I’m not sure Microsoft has made any mistakes of the nature that we’re discussing here. Maybe Play For Sure, although I’m not sure whether that hurt them much. They generally treat developers well and support legacy technologies perhaps to a fault.

"Chucky, I may not be competent to make that statement, but if I'm not, I suspect nobody outside of Apple is. So I guess we can all just agree that Apple obviously knows exactly what it's doing..."

Competent or not, I'm happy to have you making the statement.

Cupertino's actions may be good for Cupertino in the short and mid-terms, but they're sure not good for Cupertino's users and developers.

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"@michael The issue is whether this will become an issue for the mainstream consumer. That’s why I spoke of leading indicators."

Yup. It's just that leading indicators can take an awfully long time to manifest themselves in mass market terms.

Microsoft is a good case in point. Windows and Office have made every mistake in the book for 15 years, and it's still going to be a good long time until the cash cows stop giving milk. Redmond's problem is that they haven't been able to create any other successful products besides those two, and I don't think reputation has been the cause of that particular failing.

(It really is amazing how many money-losing proof-of-concept "products" Microsoft has issued in the last 15 years. That's the downside to John Sculley-ism.)

Or think about Facebook. They've spent the past several years working overtime with the seemingly singular purpose of destroying their brand, and it's hasn't even begun to make a dent in their plans.

"When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks. But as people moved more towards urban centers, people started to get into cars. " - SJ

The truck was introduced ~15 years after the car, and truck sales have actually increased relative to the car since. His analogy is cute but historically wrong in so many ways.

http://wardsauto.com/keydata/historical/UsaSa01summary/
http://www.pickuptrucks.com/html/history/segment1.html

"Reading between the lines at the way Jobs dismissed the concerns, I get the impression that he doesn’t take the issue very seriously."

Well...

I think Jobs takes the issue quite seriously from a PR standpoint. PR is what the open letter regarding Flash was all about. PR is what dissembling about the reasons for rejections are all about. PR is what the HTML5 alternative idea that Gruber has been pimping the last 48 hours is all about.

Jobs certainly cares about countering and mitigating the perception of the issue. But without needing to read between any lines, it seems clear that Jobs has made a choice that the issue is far less important than the strategic strength the lack of firm rules and the lack of candidness gives Cupertino.

[...] and Steven Frank have posted their thoughts on the quote that I mentioned from Steve Jobs: “We don’t run to the press and say, this guy is a son-of-a-bitch [...]

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