The Failure of the Open Field

It’s great that Apple has created a new platform with the iPhone and the App Store. But it’s also a ripping indictment of the personal computer industry—and cellphone industry—thus far. And not to be too nice to Apple: The beautiful stuff we’re seeing with the iPhone is mainly about pastime—not about productivity (or creativity.)

Here’s what Apple has done right: It’s created a beautiful device that works and seduces. It’s created a single environment and process for people to be able to buy, download and install applications. And then it’s set some standards so things don’t get out of hand.

This is something that should have been done years ago. Microsoft had oh so long to come up with a way for third-party developers to produce good applications and have them certified and delivered in a way that makes it easy for consumers to install them (and the developers to make a decent living from them.) Instead we have a world where increasingly users are reluctant to download apps because even the best of them come front-loaded with crapware and configuration changing tweaks.

Nokia and the other big cellphone players had a decade to get their act together: To make phones connect seamlessly with computers, and for third party developers to come up with applications that made their devices compelling. I hate installing anything on my N95 because I know it’s a nightmare. Why bother?

Now Apple have done what needed to be done. They’ve done well and they deserve to take over the market for these reasons alone. Now the iPhone has become an extraordinary device capable of some spine-tingling stuff. Computers, finally, are tapping into the creativity of individual developers. And at a price point that’s not free, but for most people is as cheap as makes no difference.

I doubt Microsoft will get it. I doubt Nokia will get it. That makes me sad. But I also have a deeper regret. That, because it’s Apple, I don’t think we’ll now see the really full potential of software ideas and development, because Apple is still a very closed-in world. That is part of the reason for its success. Making everything a single pipe tends either succeeds spectacularly or fails dismally.

But it also caps its potential. By acknowledging this success we’ve also admitted that the online chaos that we thought would work, would somehow organize itself, has not worked. Try to find a decent application for WIndows XP. Or for your N95. Try to browse and just see what’s out there, and experiment. You’re brave if you do. Apple’s walled garden approach is a roaring success because we’ve failed to make the unmown field work. And we had long enough.

From the Desk of David Pogue – So Many iPhone Apps, So Little Time – NYTimes.com

11 thoughts on “The Failure of the Open Field

  1. @Jeremy
    “Instead we have a world where increasingly users are reluctant to download apps because even the best of them come front-loaded with crapware and configuration changing tweaks.”

    My experience, both with hundreds of clients and my own behavior, is the opposite. Crapware is not that common anymore. People will search and find these apps either by themselves or via a community-type request.

    Furthermore, the Apple iTunes App store is not that well- designed to find or showcase apps that are not high in sales or fit a specific “genre”. There are thousands of apps but what are they? Are they any good? Are they worth the price? Do they fit my need? The App store is no better in answering these questions than alternative methods of finding applications.

    I much prefer using a Google SERP or sites such as:
    http://www.snapfilespro.com/a/home.php
    http://lists.thedatalist.com
    http://www.versiontracker.com

  2. Richard, thanks for the comment. I don’t have enough experience of the app store to comment, but I’m sadly reluctant to agree with your point about crapware. Even the big players mess with our settings and try to install more than we want; I’ve documented that as much as I can.

    I’ve also noticed more recently that even programs on Snapfiles etc–which I use a lot–tend to install, or try to install, things like Yahoo toolbars. It’s not as sleazy as it could be, but it further alienates tentative users.

    The sad truth is that despite the best efforts of sites like download.com and snapfiles it’s a very small proportion of users who explore new apps.

    If it’s done nothing else the app store has shown that this has nothing to do with appetite or demand; just that people don’t feel comfortable doing it.

  3. What do you think, both regulators and ISVs, such as Oracle, would have said if Microsoft had introduced an app store or some other certification for Windows software 10 or 5 years ago? These things must be handled very differently when you have 5% or more than 50% marketshare. (Applies to the world’s largest phone manufacturer Nokia as well..)

  4. why is it impossible for any one else to copy apple? have you noticed that everyone and their mother is making an app store now? doesn’t the android market already offer an open alternative?

  5. Wolke, you make a good point, although Nokia has long offered some 3rd party applications via its website and via its cellphone. But such services–and the installation of the software on the phone–has never been an easy enough experience for the vast majority of users.

    cofoley, it’s true that everyone is trying to do the same thing now. But how many downloads are they getting? I’d argue ubuntu offers an example of how it can be done, although by definition an ubuntu user is not an ‘ordinary user.’

    Yes,Frank, so do I. But most users don’t download third party software and install it. At least not in the numbers we’re seeing with iPhone. The point is not that they don’t exist, it’s that they’re not easy enough for the ordinary user to find.

  6. The reason the app store has done so well compared to other platforms is due to it’s comparative openness, Jeremy. All the other platforms are throttled by the carriers in an attempt to squeeze big companies for marketing dollars (to be on “the deck”).

    Ten of thousands of Internet-based companies manage to sell services to people every day, as do ten of thousands of Windows-based software companies. Not sure I’m seeing the failure that you’re pointing out.

  7. Eric, I believe the failure is the lack of third-party software on the average computer or non-apple cellphone. Firefox is about the only example of a program that is now being downloaded by users outside the usual ‘default crowd’–those who accept whatever’s on their computer, and rarely change it. but we’re still talking about a minority.

    Trying to persuade ordinary users–people who don’t consider playing around with their computer a good way to spend a weekend–are still very reluctant to go around looking for 3rd party software to install. and who can blame them?

  8. Jeremy you are correct. Many applications, e.g., Java or Flash, are adding crapware, browser toolbars mostly, to their installers. If one isn’t careful they install these unwanted items.

    I frequently encounter clients’ browsers that have three or more of these toolbars installed. When I ask the client if they use them they typically reply, “I don’t use them and I don’t know how they got there.”

    However, crapware used to be much worse (Windows only). I used to spend at least 1/2 hour uninstalling all the crapware that the manufacturer’s put on the machines. This has happily disappeared.

    BTW, in my experience with thousands of computer users, most of them don’t understand that these items are crapware. Instead, they think they are additional features. They are uncurious about them and do not use these “extra features”. In some ways it is the same behavior evidenced by users of feature-rich programs such as Word or Excel.

  9. Jeremy – another reason why the App Store has taken off is because the ease of development and distribution. There are two big advantages to the iPhone OS SDK: 1. The documentation/tools/resources are vastly superior to other platforms and 2. While there are only two devices to develop for (iPhone and iPod Touch), the settings, screen size and functionality are almost exactly the same and you don’t have to develop for dozens of different devices like Windows Mobile or Symbian.

    Because developers love the SDK, and Apple has made app distribution to millions of devices in 70 countries a relatively simple process, the App Store will continue to flourish.

    As a side note: my sister just informed me she was trading in her BlackBerry for an iPhone. I asked her why and her response was “People who use the iPhone just seem happier.” It’s not just users who feel this – it’s the developers as well.

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