Thursday, 6 March 2008

The iPhone SDK: Apple gets it right

I have time tonight for only a quick note on Apple's iPhone software developer kit announcement. Overall, it is deeply impressive how many things Apple got right. We still need to see more details on terms and conditions, and a lot will depend on Apple's execution, but here are the problems they appear to have solved:

--Mobile applications are hard for users to find and install, so Apple is building the applications store into every device. Apps are installed automatically when you buy them, and you can also be notified of upgrades when they're available.

--Third party applications stores take far too much of a developer's revenue -- 60% or more. So the Apple store takes 30%. That's a bit high (20% would be better), but everyone else has been so greedy that Apple looks like a charity.

--Getting applications certified for use on mobiles is expensive and time-consuming, so Apple has streamlined the process dramatically. Developers pay $99 a year, and apparently get automatic certification of all their apps. We need to learn more about how the app approval process will work, but if it's not burdensome this service alone justifies Apple's 30% cut of revenue. Apple takes responsibility for ensuring that iPhones remain secure and do not abuse the network, something that no one else has been willing to do.

--Developers want to get access to the features of the phone, so Apple has exposed a very rich API set including access to the accelerometer and other special features of the iPhone. This is not a sandbox; it looks like it's access to pretty much the whole OS.

--And oh by the way, Kleiner Perkins is creating a $100 venture million fund for iPhone developers. Makes Google's $10m contest for Android developers look like a popgun.

It has been obvious for at least six years that all of these changes were needed in the mobile market, but until now no one in the US and Europe has had the courage / political muscle / intelligence to carry them all out. The other mobile platforms now look pretty pathetic by comparison -- not so much because their technologies are bad, but because their business infrastructure is so primitive.

At the announcement today, John Doerr called this Apple's third platform, which has a very specific meaning in Silicon Valley. It means they're planning to drive rapid growth in apps, which will make the iPhone more attractive to customers, which will in turn attract more developers, bringing in even more users, and so on in a virtuous circle.

I don't know how far Apple can drive that, just because their sales are so small compared to the total number of phones out there. I still think it's likely that web apps will eventually displace most native mobile apps, because the addressable market will be so much larger. But eventually can take a long time, and if anyone can buck the trend it'll be Apple. They have created by far the best overall proposition for mobile developers on any platform in the US or Europe, and I hope they'll do very well for a long time.

Apple is challenging the rest of the mobile industry to compete on its terms. It will be very interesting to see how the other mobile vendors react, Nokia and Microsoft in particular. Nokia seems to be focused on a strategic positioning activity around seeing who can collect the most runtimes, while Apple is solving real developer and user problems. It's a striking contrast.

The rest of the industry is still trying to figure out how to respond to the system design of the iPhone, and now they need to also figure out how to run an ecosystem as well. Right now Apple is changing the terms of the competition faster than the other guys can react, which is exactly the right way to beat a group of larger competitors.

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