Sunday, April 4, 2010

Apple's Fail and Win

First, the win: The App Store. With the App Store, Apple has setup the iPhone and now the iPad to be "game changers." If there's a piece of software that can make the device a winner, someone will likely create it and shove it into the App Store. And that amazing "community" (and it is a community of sorts, thanks to the fact that it's so easy for users to contribute and things to bubble up thanks to reviews and intelligent pricing) is what can totally shape demand for a product.

How did they do it? They created the hardware, then they created an operating system for the hardware along with the Software Development Kit (SDK) that any developer could use to very easily create an application, and then there is the relatively pain-free process of submitting your application to the App Store where Apple will sell it for you and distribute your revenue to you. Yes, I admit that there has been some problems between developers and Apple over problems with the App Store, but you have to admit that on the whole the model has worked very well for both parties. Apple does continue to listen to developers and add facilities developers need to continue to push the envelope, too.

Articles today about the iPad launch are pointing to the fact that a lot of people in line to buy first day iPads are doing so only because they'd "buy anything Apple sells" and thus are just lemmings. I submit that the App Store is mostly to blame for this kind of thinking, though. They know that there already are apps for it and there will be even more apps for it and are counting on those to make the device something they will treasure. You can already stream Netflix to it, watch TV from ABC, read USA Today and NY Times news, and it has complete eBook functionality including an App for those who already have Kindle eBooks. With most of that being completely free. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that they've already got the thing serving some pretty significant markets. It won't just be a success because of some lemmings.

Where does the App Store go next? Only Apple knows. I'm surprised they haven't tried to push it a little more for the Mac platform myself.

Now, the fail: Apple is far too limiting on the hardware integration side. They simply haven't embraced anything resembling an open model for allowing other companies to integrate the iPhone, iPod Touch, and now iPad in with their hardware. The first sign of this was how closed the Bluetooth is on the iPhone. It allows you to connect your iPhone to a Bluetooth headset, but the rest of the Bluetooth API is closed to third party developers. This means no Bluetooth keyboards, no syncing to a computer via Bluetooth, and no talking to a whole host of other Bluetooth devices that were starting to appear on the market. There were many $50 devices out there that were Bluetooth that manufacturers have now made into $150 wifi devices just to talk to the iPhone. This is not a win for consumers, obviously. Bluetooth is a perfect mechanism for a digital camera to get GPS information from your iPhone so it can geotag your photos, for instance. But Apple makes that impossible, even though all the building blocks exist already.

The problem runs much deeper than Bluetooth. Apple very closely licenses its dock connector, so anyone who wants to connect to it must pay Apple and go through a process to validate what they want to do with the device. So far this has been very limited. We've seen alarm clocks and a few basic stereo docks, but little more. Will we see refrigerators let you dock your iPad for easy recipe access and podcast playing? Will we ever see an aftermarket car stereo where the face is just an iPhone dock? Will we ever have the ability to control any aftermarket device via the dock part in a generic form? Ie. RS-232? There are currently a ton of possible industrial uses for the iPhone/Touch/iPad that we can't even try thanks to Apple closing up their serial port. The bigger problem is not the things I have thought of that we're missing, but the things the truly inventive hardware folks might find that would really kick some serious butt. They're not even trying, because they know Apple won't let it happen.

I don't know why Apple doesn't want third parties to let people control their devices with Apple products. Seems to me they've been a perfect mass market device that they'd sell even more of if they would. But for some strange reason they just won't embrace third party hardware like they have third party software. Could it be that they just can't take the step into a realm where they don't (and can't) have the level of control they have now with the App Store? I don't know, but it's pretty maddening to those of us who can see all kinds of awesome uses for these devices only to have an Apple roadblock in the way of making it happen.

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