Love in Stockholm

Last week, the poor state of independent software sustainability on iOS moved noted developer Brent Simmons to write an essay urging indies to "do it for the love," a resignation of sorts to the seeming reality that supporting oneself economically purely from developing and publishing apps of one's own choosing is a pipe dream.

"This is the age of writing iOS apps for love."

The essay was popular, spurring much social sharing, tut-tut-ing and wringing of hands. Something about this reaction began to bother me, the aww-shucks, there's-noting-we-can-do, it-just-didn't-work-out -ness of it all that felt like everyone was handing out passes all around. And then famed blogger and podcaster John Gruber drove it home when he wrote:

…indie development for iOS and the App Store just hasn’t worked out the way we thought it would.

I disagree. This outcome was entirely predictable.

I said as much two years ago:

Apple has powerful incentives to commoditize and devalue software, while tying that software to its platforms. Apps make its iPhones and iPads, and to a lesser extent Macs, more attractive as consumer electronics appliances. Having lots of cheap or free apps is great for Apple, but very difficult for all but the most riotously successful (in terms of sales volume) developers to sustain.

Put more bluntly, Apple is not your friend.

This is an unpopular opinion among Apple fans, users and developers alike, and I think it's because of Love. The iOS indie space is filled with and shaped by former and current Mac indies, especially from the years when Apple was not the dominant platform vendor, as well as lifelong fans of the company and its products. These are people who love Apple, and I think it blinded them to the fact that Apple now works at cross-purposes with them.

iOS is not the Mac; Apple is best served by having an abundance of free or cheap apps that sweeten the value proposition for a consumer considering buying an iPhone, iPad or, now, Watch; and by having those apps provide free updates in perpetuity. Apple moved to realize those benefits, and idealistic indie developers are now left holding the bag.

Before I continue, a huge caveat: my remarks pertain solely to productivity applications. If you are making indie games, or tiny little utilities that don't solve complex problems, well, sorry. I have neither answers nor suggestions. Individual artisans creating commodity goods rarely make good livings, either. How many minimalist note-taking apps do you think the market can support?

Most indie problems stem from not approaching the business of selling apps as a business. Failing to determine who our individual customers are, mistakenly assuming that every App Store user is addressable by us—that's like thinking everyone in the US is a potential customer for your winter weather smartphone cozies. Failing to take on the challenge of marketing our applications ourselves, thinking that just releasing our apps to the App Store was sufficient. Failing to price our products sustainably, chasing the entire App Store at bottom barrell prices (99¢?) even as our actual addressable users would happily pay order of magnitude multiples. Curtis Herbert covered many of these in his rejoinder to Simmons:

…being independent is hard and many of us that try will not succeed.

But every one of those is exacerbated when you fail to identify the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Apple, through direct control, shapes its App Stores, and through size and profitability influences the policies of others. It does not have a vested interest in your success or sustainability, just your app's availability.

Yes, Apple is just people, but Apple is also a corporation and corporations are rather ambivalent about people. Despite the sincerity of individuals at nearly any level of a large corporation, the aggregate force of shareholder interest, profit and competition will frequently drive a corporation to act against you. Dijkstra warned us not to anthropomorphize our programs. Neither should we anthropomorphize our platforms, or the corporations that control them.

It's funny—ironic, really; my impression is that the Apple indie community has always held a wary view of Google as a corporation likely to turn on you and exploit you at any time. It's disappointing to see them misplace their trust in Apple because of a sense of shared history, or deep intertwining with personal/professional actualizations and comings of age, or love. Apple Inc. isn't Apple Computer, Inc., and neither is Tim or Phil or Jony … or Steve.

Many thanks to Jeremy W. Sherman for proofreading an early version of this essay. His feedback was invaluable for honing the delivery of what I was trying to say. Any flaws are my (re-)introductions! :-)