The iPhone returns the “romance” of the early PC marketplace

Posted by on December 16, 2009 in Essay, iPhone/iPad, Programming | 4 comments

It has now been just a little over a 20 months since Apple changed the industry, (yet again), by releasing the iPhone SDK. Had anyone back then predicted that less than two years later, less than two circuits around an average yellow star in the outer arm of the galaxy, the Appstore would be bulging under the weight of over 100,000 applications, they would have been carried away, hidden and fed raw cabbage for about 12 years.

But here we are. I personally have 5 apps up on the store (Distant Suns, Distant Suns (lite), Grand Tour, Weather Planet, and the Live365 player), with one more on the launching pad.

Perhaps one of the keys to this explosion of creativity among the app development communities, is that it revives the notion of solo-programmer applications. In the early days of the PC, the very first software packages were generally created by one or two people on their kitchen table. Heck, they probably even used zip-lock bags as their “packaging.”

BoingThe systems were small as were expectations for the applications. A “major” game might take only a couple of months for one guy to develop, with perhaps a little additional help from a single artist. As the machines grew larger and more feature-filled the expectations grew as well. Simple 8-bit pixilated images gave way to complicated 3D renderi

ngs. Basic static splash-screens were replaced with new cinema-quality animated intros. Cheesy electronic soundtracks were shunted aside for fully orchestrated mini-symphonies. And with the latest game titles, for example, such as Spore or Grand Tourismo, the budgets and manpower approach those of Hollywood feature films costing tens of millions of dollars.

The original version of my first app, Distant Suns (back then called “Galileo 1.0”), was developed over a year of spare evenings on a budget of about $2000 on a floppy based Commodore Amiga 1000 with two meg of RAM. With the advent of the iPhone version, the good ol’ desktop version has now been officially retired. But with few exceptions, up to the very end, DS was still a solo-programmer desktop product and held the distinction of being one of the last vestiges of a more, dare I say, “romantic” nerd era. (If of course “romantic” and “nerd” can be used in the same sentence.) Likewise, it has also been a point of personal pride.

The early days of the web were somewhat the same, as there was a crying need for even the most basic software andservices. Anyone who could even spell HTML could land a job, and companies such as Yahoo and Google were started by only a handful of smart guys to fill, frankly, a fairly easy-to-fill but nonetheless deep, void. However try and start another Google today and be prepared to sink tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into the venture.*

The iPhone has changed all of that. True, other mobile platforms have small communities of hobbyist programmers churning out little tools and games in their spare time, but the market and distribution channels are so disjointed and camouflaged from the users that even if they knew they could buy third party applications the process has such high friction that it discourages a lot of potential sales. The entire iPhone/iPod eco-system is a rule changer, asAppleis at its best when creating a complete end-to-end solution. What would the iPod be without the iTunes music store for example? And what would the iPhone be without the Appstore? It would likely be a neat little novelty handset, and nothing much more. And only after Apple has shown the world how to do “it” right, have we seen other companies finally step in and try to replicate their success.

By opening up the platform to third party developers and creating an efficient and (relatively) elegant distribution channel, Apple has at least temporarily resurrected the solo-programmer market. One reason being that the very nature of the platform makes the expectations much less then for say, the PS3 market. Memory, screen and input limitations are such that ten million dollar budgets and huge armies of developers are unnecessary to create a successful product. Instead, a good idea and a little bit of luck is all that is needed. Not to mention the desire to create something beautiful and fun that people will love using.

Also, from the engineering side of the fence, the thing is just a hoot to program. Apple has the “IJW” philosophy, It  Just Works. Getting the SDK up and running was a breeze, relatively speaking. Compare this to say, Symbian. Early this year I spent about 4 weeks on a Symbian contract to help finish a very cool product so it could go out the door. Most of that time was spent merely trying to get a stable dev system. The emulator worked fine, but two of the mods I needed could only be done on the device. I never got beyond the (the very complicated) build stage and had to declare failure, costing my client a lot of money and delaying their work. Also few individuals don’t have the resources to buy dozens of phones to just test on. At my “real” job we just completed a Blackberry product. We needed to invest in five or six different models just to insure it worked (with a keyboard, without a keyboard, with a scroll-wheel, without a scroll-wheel. Bleh). No such hassle with the Apple’s equipment. Buy one device and you got the entire testing lab. But I digress…

So what does this all mean? The iPhone and iPod touch are more than just cool looking little hand-held computers. They are the foundation of an entire new industry. When the Amiga 1000 first came out Byte Magazine stated that it has so much capability it was like an “ocean” that needed to be filled. The same holds true for this little gem.

Programmers have had a love/hate relationship with Mr. Jobs over the years, but right now, they love him. Over 100,000 applications for a platform that’s been out for less than 3 years attest to that.

So say we all.

*Side note: About three years ago an acquaintance of mine told me that he was starting a new search-engine company. Mentally I rolled my eyes and wondered if we really needed yet another search engine. Not too long ago Microsoft bought him out. Can you say “Bing?” So apply the above rule with care. At least when Microsoft is nosing around.