Tag Archives: John Gruber

Is it time for Apple to open up the App Store model?

I don’t often link to Daring Fireball, basically because I assume that you’re all reading it anyway. But in his post on Tits and Apps, John perfectly summarises the challenge that faces Apple in maintaining its mindshare with mobile developers:

Apple sees the App Store as an aspect of its brand. Developers see the App Store as the entirety of the Cocoa Touch platform. This is a significant conflict. Developers, if rejected from the App Store, can freely deliver whatever content they choose through MobileSafari — but you can’t reuse compiled Cocoa Touch apps that way. The work invested in a native app can only be recouped through the App Store.

The obvious answer to this – and, I suspect, the long-term solution – is to have more than one App Store. The Apple App Store would, like Apple’s physical and online stores, be quality goods selected by Apple. The other store (or stores?) would be more free-form, with levels of gauranteed quality which differed from those Apple set.

You would expect that any store which Apple allowed into the walled garden of the iPhone would have certain limitations. For example, the apps wouldn’t be allowed to use private APIs, or contain malware, and I would expect Apple to continue to check every iPhone app for this (and take a cut – less than 30%, but not nothing).

Daring Fireball’s wishful thinking

I totally understand where John Gruber is coming from with his post on “The OS Opportunity“. The problem is that there’s a whole lot of wishful thinking in there.

First of all, go read John’s post. Rather than try and summarise here and potentially mischaracterise what he’s saying, you just go read it.

Back? Good. Then we’ll begin. John’s first point is that what kept people on DOS was simply file compatibility:

“In those days, before DOS ran most competing platforms out of the market, interoperability and data interchange were at best difficult, and often impossible. Data was stored in incompatible file formats written to incompatible floppy disks1 by incompatible apps compiled for incompatible CPU architectures. Even later in the ’80s, when networking became common (at least in businesses) the network protocols were proprietary.

That was the world where DOS won out. Get everyone on DOS and you could all open each other’s WordPerfect and 1-2-3 files, if only by sharing them on floppy disks. So DOS gained users, and because it gained users it got developers, and because it gained developers it got more users.”

While this is partially true, it ignores two other factors which always mitigate against switching platform – and which continue to do so today.

The first is familiarity. Familiarity, to geeks like me and John, is something you often avoid like the plague. Geeks like us like tinkering with new stuff, learning how to do new things with new tools. We switch because it’s fun (today’s example of this from John: Switching to Camino. Only geeks like us look at switching browsers as the kind of thing you can do on a whim. Why else does the blatantly inferior IE retain so much market share?)

But for someone with years of experience of DOS (or Windows), running WordPerfect and Lotus, switching to an alternate operating system and set of applications was always a big deal. The path of least resistance was always to stick with the platform you’re on, because learning new stuff got in the way. GUIs mitigated this a bit – but didn’t change the situation with applications. For someone who’s been using Excel professionally for 10 years, switching to Numbers is a big, big deal – and that’s despite Numbers being pretty easy to get your head around.

This is even more apparent in the business world, where switching means training hundreds of users in how to use the new tools. There’s a very good reason why corporates tend to be a couple of versions behind the latest, even for products where there’s a clear, delineated upgrade path and a level of familiarity.

The second reason is the oldest one in the book: money. If you’re a seasoned Windows user, switching from Windows to Mac doesn’t just cost you the time to learn new applications (even when there’s a Mac version of a Windows app, they’re usually different enough to cause angst). You have to actually buy the applications, because few (if any) companies give freebies to switchers.

Of course, this second issue isn’t an issue if you’re switching from closed source to open source. And some of it is also negated by being able to use freebie tools on the web. But the more complex your needs, the less likely it is that either can fill them. And the quality of both free online tools and open source stuff is (to be kind) variable, particularly when it comes to the kind of simplicity of interface design that someone switching OS’s is going to appreciate. I know – I’ve done it.

“A similar feedback loop is going on with the iPhone today, but it’s far less sticky. The DOS/Windows monopoly grew impregnable because it was a platform where the only way to play along was to join it.”

John’s right that this feedback loop is going on with the iPhone, and that it’s less sticky, but there’s two reasons for that. First, the smartphone software market is nascent: it’s in the equivalent of the era of (as John puts it) “the Apple II, the IBM PC and DOS, Commodore, Atari, Acorn. The TI-99/4A.”. People forget that DOS wasn’t the only game in town – only the weight of IBM’s brand and the anti-trust rules which allowed Compaq and a slew of others to clone the IBM PC really made it the overall winner. Even the iPhone, which is massive in terms of mindshare, only has 17% of the smartphone market. That’s about as much as the Apple II had at its high-point. The smartphone market is still massively fragmented – and it’s a very open question whether that will continue.

John’s bet, I think, is that it will continue to be fragmented – although I don’t think he overtly states this, so please forgive me if I’m reading something in that’s not really there.

I think that assuming this is true says a lot about what you believe is the future of mobile software. If you think that smartphone software is fundamentally one-trick apps, throwaways, stuff which is easy to develop and easy to dump, then jumping from one smartphone to another is always going to be easy.

But if you think that developers are going to create more and more complex apps, and that these are what consumers will increasing demand and use, then switching becomes more of an issue. The fact that Omnifocus is only on iPhone will almost certainly mean that my next phone will also be an iPhone, despite my constant pain at the fact that the iPhone doesn’t multi-task. If there was no Omnifocus, I would switch. And I suspect that I’m going to be increasingly not alone – with 100,000 apps, the potential for the “just one app that I need” being on iPhone grows.

“If Palm can create WebOS for pocket-sized computers — replete with an email client, calendaring app, web browser, and SDK — why couldn’t these companies make something equivalent for full-size computers? The hard part of what Palm is doing with WebOS is getting acceptable performance out of a cell phone processor.”

Because no one would buy it. It’s not like people haven’t tried. There’s a very good reason why people have chosen Windows netbooks over Linux ones, even when Linux has been cheaper – they want to run the apps they are familiar with. And they don’t generally just want web apps – they want native ones. Rich beats thin, every time.

“These PC makers are lacking in neither financial resources nor opportunity. What they’re lacking is ambition, gumption, and passion for great software and new frontiers. They’re busy dying.”

And this is where John’s wishful thinking really comes to the fore. Who, exactly, is dying? HP, which made $2.2 billion profit in its last quarter? Dell, which made $472 million profit? While those aren’t as good as Apple’s numbers (because SteveJ has played a very smart game), neither looks like a company that’s “busy dying” to me.

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How I’ve spent my career getting it wrong (and don’t regret a thing)

From 1995 to 2006 or thereabouts, I was a full-time journalist mostly working on the Mac market. I did pretty-much every kind of writing you can do about Macs, from help and advice to sermon-on-the-mount editorials. But most of the time, I was that most oft-critiqued of animals: a reporter, a writer of news.

A news story – at least, a good one – is the tip of a very big iceberg. Actually writing the copy probably takes up a tiny proportion of the time of a good journalist. The rest of the time is spent cultivating sources, gathering information, digging deep into stuff, following up wild hunches and becoming the kind of person who people in your market know and trust. Stories themselves are very formulaic writing, and anyone with any talent can actually churn them out pretty quickly. It’s the stuff that goes into the story that takes time and energy.

My first news editor gave me two pieces of good advice. First, spend as much of your time out and about as possible. Nothing turns contacts into sources more than face to face meetings, the odd lunch and maybe even a small glass of wine (or ten). Second, if you read about it in a press release, it’s not news: that stuff is what companies want you to write about, which is almost exactly the kind of thing that makes a dull story. Read press releases, sure. But then put them in the bin, because they ain’t news.

This news ethos meant we ended up with a pretty good track record of breaking stories and a good reputation in our industry and amongst our peers. It’s a source of constant regret to me that we never really transferred that ethos well into the online space – but that’s another story.

But the thing that you learn from experience is that no matter how good your sources, there is no guarantee that a story will end up right.

As you might expect, one of the companies that I spent a LOT of time cultivating sources in was Apple. And I had some good ones – more than one, in high-enough-to-know positions. No matter how good the source, you rarely took a punt on a story which had only a single source. Heck, if Steve Jobs himself had called me up with story, I’d have preferred if there was a second source.

On more than one occasion, I had a story down cold: multiple sources, within Apple (and sometimes outside) confirming exact details. People who literally had product introduction plans in their hands, reading out details to me.

And sometimes, those stories turned out to be wrong. Sometimes, almost totally wrong.

Why? A variety of reasons: pricing or details changing at the very last minute; products being pulled from a keynote; a super-secret feature which no one outside of sealed rooms in Cupertino knew about. There are lots of ways to get a story wrong.

That is why I gently tweaked John Gruber’s tail in my post the other day. John, having claimed he would never post a report he didn’t know to be true, has found out the hard way that truth is sometimes a little less fixed than it looks. I’m sure his sources are good. I’m sure his sources told him what they believed to be true (and maybe even what was at the time). And he STILL got it wrong.

So why pick on John – someone whose work I respect enormously, and who people I know who know him say is a good guy? Simply because he’s developed an annoying habit of (as Americans say) “calling people out” with posts on “claim chowder” and “Jackass of the week”. It’s snarky, and its probably popular with his readership – but it’s also lazy and dumb.

Journalism looks easy from the outside, because you only see the tip of the iceberg. When you get in the trenches and start actually doing it, it starts to get a little harder. And when you aspire to be really good at it, you’d better be prepared to take some lumps along the way, get things wrong – and keep striving to get the real story, the hidden one that companies don’t want your readers to know about.

(John Gruber image by Presta)

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Daring Fireball is wrong about Microsoft’s weakness

I am, you’ll have noted, an argumentative sod. This is a great source of irritation to my dear other half, who rolls her eyes as I shout at the television or Internet. But sometimes, you read something and… well… you just have to respond.

Such is the case with John Gruber’s post on “Microsoft’s long, slow decline“. Now I should make this clear: John’s a very smart fellow and a terrific writer. I have huge respect for him. But his post is also riddled with more than a few canards and non sequiturs which make it sound like something is happening which, honestly, isn’t. Continue reading

John Gruber questions NPD figures, just as NPD figures turn against Apple

Having seen the NPD report which claimed Apple’s retail market share has dropped, John Gruber takes issue:

“It’s never been clear to me why reports like this are reported as fact. NPD doesn’t have some sort of magic access to Apple’s sales numbers, and Apple does not release monthly sales data.”

Which is interesting, given this report that John ran last May:

“The idea that Apple now sells two-thirds of retail computers costing $1000 or more is simply stunning… I strongly suspect that if NPD’s numbers were more granular, Apple’s share would be even more dramatic at higher price ranges: $1500+, $2000+, etc.”

Or this one, where he approvingly writes of Ina Fried’s report on (you guessed it) NPD numbers:

“It is entirely possible that hell has frozen over: there are PC industry analysts saying sensible things about Apple’s market share.”

Or this one, where he reports NPD numbers on the iPhone:

“The NPD Group is reporting that the iPhone 3G is now the top-selling consumer mobile phone in the U.S., beating the Motorola Razr for the top spot.”

In fact, a Google search shows the number of references to NPD on DF – mostly, approving of the positive figures about Apple market share they’ve consistently produced over the past few years – now goes on to two pages.

Of course, picking out old posts where people got it wrong is easy (there’s plenty of them here, if you care to look). And everyone has the right to change their mind. John would probably argue that he’s caveated most (but not all) of his posts about NPD numbers with “NPD is reporting that…”

But this doesn’t change the fact that John has been happy to lean on NPD numbers and talk about them as if they were fact for a while.

It looks pretty odd start to question the veracity of a research company you’ve been happy to report on before at just the same moment their numbers change direction. That’s doubly true when those numbers challenge the hopes and desires of a big chunk of your readership.

So why didn’t the first iPhone have 3G, again?

When the first iPhone came out, a lot of noise was made about the lack of 3G. Specifically, battery life was cited by lots of people as the primary reason for this apparent oversight. Headlines like "Jobs: battery life issues delaying 3G iPhone" even suggested that battery life was the canonical reason for no 3G.

This kind of headline actually made Apple look a little stupid. Other phone makers have long managed to get 3G with decent (in fact, often excellent) battery life. If Nokia could do it, why not Apple? But, in fact, the release of the 3G iPhone makes it clear: battery life, while an issue, wasn’t the only reason for the lack of 3g in the first iPhone.

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