By Adrian Duyzer on March 29, 2010
A lot of concern has been expressed by developers about the closed nature of the iPad and its ecosystem.
Applications that run natively on the device (as opposed to web applications which run in the web browser Safari), are completely controlled by Apple. You have to purchase them from Apple's app store, and you can't modify them in any way. Nor can you modify any core part of the operating system, or the device itself, without hacking it.
This has upset many software developers. Many (including myself) are unwilling to develop for a platform that requires someone else's approval before people can use their software. Many also have philosophical objections: the iPad banishes tinkering; threatens open source software; takes away all control from its users and developers, and so on.
These concerns are not without merit. However, I believe that regardless of how you perceive Apple's business strategy (and it is a straightforward business strategy, namely vertical integration), the iPad is probably very good for both native application and web developers, although it does carry some risk.
The Attention Market
Authors and book publishers are realizing that the biggest threat to their livelihoods is not technology - the fear that they're next in line for demolition after the music industry - but the dwindling amount of attention people are paying to books.
People only have so much free time, and they spend very little of it reading books. One in four Americans reads no books at all, and the others don't read much: of those who do, the median quantity is nine books per year for women and five per year for men (to make it worse for novelists, those figures count religious books like the Bible).
People do, however, watch a heck of a lot of television. They also spend a lot of time on the Internet. Interestingly, in Canada, weekly Internet usage just moved ahead of television viewing for the first time since polling firm Ipsos-Reid started tracking it.
As time spent on the Internet grows, time spent in other recreational activities diminishes. Competing for people's attention is a zero-sum game.
So What Do Developers Want?
We want people to be using our software, whether it's a web application hosted on a server somewhere, or a native application running directly on a device.
We want to be able to effectively compete against the myriad other activities that people engage in: reading books, watching movies and television, listening to music, and even doing things that don't involve staring at a glowing rectangle.
That's why the creation and popularization of really compelling tablets is so good for developers. Tablets are much more suited to becoming part of people's living room activities than regular computers are.
The iPad is slim, attractive, easy to use on the couch, easy to hand to someone else, good for two-person gameplay, a compelling substitute for magazines - the list goes on. Any decent competitor to the iPad will share these characteristics.
That makes the tablet a new vector into the attention market.
Developers who care about an open ecosystem - the ones who object to developing for Apple's app store - just need there to be a strong alternative to the iPad to cash in on this vector. So how long before we see a compelling competitor?
I think we'll see the first of the competitors in 12 to 18 months. This is a different situation than the iPhone, where strong competitors have only emerged in the last few months, years after the introduction of the iPhone. In this case, all the ingredients you need for a tablet, such as a screen and an operating system designed for multi-touch, have been developed for phones. This is one excellent reason for Apple's patent lawsuit against HTC: they are seeking to prevent the launch of an iPad competitor in the near future.
The biggest risk to developers posed by the way Apple has chosen to develop the iPad is that it will prompt other companies to follow similar business models. This wouldn't be surprising: Amazon, for example, has taken this approach with the Kindle.
If every company that chooses to manufacture a tablet follows a strategy as closed as Apple's, developers will have no choice but to either stick purely to web development, or bite the bullet and accept the terms of an app store.
I think this is unlikely simply because of Google's involvement, along with the powerful financial incentives for other advanced device manufacturers to jump onto the tablet bandwagon. Google has shown its commitment to a different way of doing business in the smartphone industry by pushing Android as the best alternative to the iPhone OS for smartphone manufacturers that want to go head-to-head with Apple. Tablets are surely next.
That means that developers of native applications will soon reap the rewards of a new way to grab the attention of millions of people.
Web developers, of course, can reap those benefits immediately by developing for Safari on iPad, taking advantage of one of the best implementations of HTML5 features, built on the open-source rendering engine WebKit.
And just like Apple failed to be the primary beneficiary of the personal computing revolution it helped launch, so it may well fail to be the primary beneficiary of the tablet revolution it is popularizing.