Is Apple’s stance on cross-platform development tools about development cycles?

Tue, Apr 13, 2010


Louis Gerbarg argues that Apple’s update to the iPhone developer agreement has less to do with controlling the user experience, and more to do with keeping Apple’s development cycles on target.

iPhoneOS runs on extremely tight schedules, with a very high degree of secrecy, and at a pace completely controlled by Apple. I know it is popular to claim that maintaining binary compatibility is easy, that is the argument du jour made by people claiming Apple should just support developers using private APIs. Well, they are just wrong. Ask anyone who has been involved with a couple of releases of Mac OS or Windows about the amount of effort involved in keeping old apps working, especially those using private APIs…

So, if you will indulge my claim that backwards compatibility is hard (even absent the private API issue) it is pretty easy to see why supporting other runtimes is ceding a lot of control to a 3rd party. Imagine if 10% of the apps on iPhone came from Flash. If that was the case, then ensuring Flash didn’t break release to release would be a big deal, much bigger than any other compatibility issues. Since Apple doesn’t have access to Flash CS5’s runtime library code or compiler frontend, they might be put in a position where they would need to coordinate with Adobe to resolve those issues. Shipping a new release where Apple breaks any specific application, even a top seller, is not an issue if the release is compelling, most apps work, and Apple has the option of working with the vendor to help them fix their app. Shipping a release where they break a large percentage of apps is not generally an option. Letting any of these secondary runtimes develop a significant base of applications in the store risks putting Apple in a position where the company that controls that runtime can cause delays in Apple’s release schedule, or worse, demand specific engineering decisions from Apple, under the threat of withholding the information necessary to keep their runtime working.

This isn’t some perceived risk, I can think of incidents where Apple reverted OS changes, dumped new APIs, or was forced to committing massive engineering resources to something it did not want to do because a Must Not Break™ app vendor told them to. Apple does not want to give anyone that sort of influence over them. So ultimately, preventing Flash on the platform is about control, but is not control over the user experience of the Flash applications, or even the languages used. It is about the runtimes they bring on to the system, and Apple’s control over future releases of iPhone OS.


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