Echoing some of my own sentiments about the App Store compared to the web as distribution channels, Joe Hewitt — developer of Firebug (Firefox before that), the Facebook iPhone app and countless developer essentials — writes:
I’d like to add my voice to the stream of complaints about the iPhone App Store, but before I say anything critical, I have to promise one thing. No matter how annoyed I get, I will not stop developing for Apple’s platforms or using Apple’s products as long as they continue to produce the best stuff on the market. I never forget how deeply Apple cares about making their users happy, and that counts more than how they treat their developers. Besides, when I have a problem with a friend, I don’t threaten to boycott our friendship until they change, so I’m not going to do that to Apple either.
Having said that, I have only one major complaint with the App Store, and I can state it quite simply: the review process needs to be eliminated completely.
Does that sound scary to you, imagining a world in which any developer can just publish an app to your little touch screen computer without Apple’s saintly reviewers scrubbing it of all evil first? Well, it shouldn’t, because there is this thing called the World Wide Web which already works that way, and it has served millions and millions of people quite well for a long time now.
He goes on to discuss the gargantuan task of having to effectively evaluate the thousands of apps that are submitted each week to the App Store — pointing out that the app developers themselves would be more effective at diagnosing and remedying bugs than the Apple reviewers. He suggests that the review process is really in place to ensure agreement with Apple’s terms of service, rather than to benefit the end user, a point he makes in series of tweets (best read bottom to top):
He concludes his post thus:
If you think that all apps should be held prisoner by Apple until proven safe, you should also be able to convince yourself that this is how the web should work. Perhaps I am just spoiled by my many years of web development. The next time I create a web app I will probably feel a little guilty when I upload the files to my web server, knowing that I didn’t have to ask the web police to review the app first to make sure I wasn’t evil.
Given that Joe works at Facebook and Facebook just hired David Recordon, it’s interesting to watch how Facebook itself wrestles with the yin-yang of the open versus closed models of innovation and design, at times at polar opposite ends of the same spectrum. Facebook has assembled a tream of really smart people to lead their platform efforts — many of whom have worked on open source projects in the past (Joe, Mike Schroepfer and Blake Ross all worked on Firefox, to name a few). Meanwhile, my good friend and Facebook platform manager, Dave Morin, hails from Apple — and the Jobsonian influence runs deep in him.
You can see the push-and-pull of these influences throughout Facebook platform its products.
On the one hand, Facebook talks about itself as though it were an “open source” company — bringing light to the dark realm of social software. On the other, Facebook Connect prioritizes a singular user experience that eliminates choice in order to achieve user acceptance and familiarity.
That kind of challenge — balancing openness, freedom, and choice with convenience, accessibility and visionary design — is a tension that I think leads to great products. Tipping the balance too far in any particular direction can lead to distortions, especially when caused by priorities that are not intrinsically aimed at enhancing the user experience but instead stem from a fear of openness or, as I like to say, embracing the chaos.
Apple is in the center of an increasingly volatile vortex. They have built an incredibly valuable platform and everyone wants a piece, but in putting themselves in between developers and their customers, Apple is taking on a role it is simply ill-equipped for, and one that increasingly makes it look like a bad guy, in spite of the love that most people otherwise feel for the company.
It’s one thing for AT&T to be hated — it’s practically a given. But for Apple to become the butt end of developer complaints is an awkward and unfortunate position that it can’t enjoy. I think Joe Hewitt’s right, and I think it’s time Apple seriously considered the damage being caused by a process that was likely instituted to prevent a different kind of damage — one that, in comparison, seems somewhat irrelevant given Facebook’s experiment — and ongoing success — at implementing a resilient trust-first platform.