For seven years, I wanted to believe.
I wanted a new programming language. I wanted apps that could talk to each other. I wanted Apple to care about their developers and not just reluctantly allow them, even though they’re the biggest thing nailing their customers to their devices. I wanted them to not toss the Mac aside, or limit it to iOS-only features.
Two weeks ago, they did the closest thing they could do to actually jump around shouting “Developers, Developers, Developers, Developers”, and they mostly fixed all of that. Where they didn’t fix it, they at least made sure to set out a direction forward that wasn’t the yoke of Steve Jobs, who would have fired anyone who would have brought up third-party keyboards. Out of a cannon. Into the sun.
The reason the room full of developers went bonkers is because they’ve all been waiting for this, too. (I’m hardly original.)
So while I now have services on iOS and while Dropbox and version control now can actually cleanly integrate into the Finder, and while I am immeasurably thankful for all of this, it turns out that I’m a fickle punk. I also wanted something else, something more important to me.
The wrong argument for an open platform is that there are two kinds of people: clueless and power users. (This is degrading in both directions; I just want to establish that it’s a lousy taxonomy.) Power users will want to fiddle with every which bit of everything and the clueless won’t, and building a platform to save the clueless from the fiddly bits will keep the power users away from it, and so you’d better include ground-breaking features like letting people install whatever the fuck they want.
It makes sense, but it’s the wrong argument because it’s not complete. Many such power users are apparently fine on iOS right now. Many clueless users have the audacity to want apps that don’t fit Apple’s high moral American something something apple pie standards, which apparently are fine with noting how 13 year olds are in attendance one minute and making weed jokes the next. (I’m perfectly fine with this and this is their inconsistency to resolve.) Additionally, I don’t know of a point where people graduate from clueless to power user, and it may be the case that I’m a clueless CAD and accounting software user. It may be that we’re looking not only at a spectrum from nimrod to expert, but a spectrum with many dimensions.
The right argument for an open platform is “it’s your foot”. Let’s minimize the damage you can make, let’s not place caps on brilliance and let’s reap the benefits.
But so much for wanting a theoretical open platform. Apple announced and demonstrated that it’s ready to treat developers better, and it followed it up by announcing and demonstrating that this quest is incompatible by their current methods by rejecting apps that they already have for features that they didn’t just add for breaking rules that they’re not breaking.
Parts of the App Store model cuts to the essence of acquisition and installation, and we’re all thankful for that, but ending it with “and then we will help ourselves to your judgement and start deciding for all our hundreds of millions of users” is still as intellectually bankrupt as ever. Apple should be commended for making a reasonable package manager and payment service and denounced for the rest, including the monopoly part.
It’s not that they have a poor track record. They could be messing up like this every single day and manage not to. But it’s still a Kafka-esque maze of passages, all alike. It still will never be stronger than the weakest link in the chain. It still is the most arrogant disaster to strike computing in this century. And it still needs to go.
My hope is that WWDC was Glasnost and Perestroika. Apple didn’t think people could make a better keyboard than them one month ago. The lesson behind WWDC is: do they think so today or have their calculus changed such that even if they don’t, they finally see the benefit in humoring us? To go back a decade and across a continent, maybe they’re adhering to Deng Xiaoping: “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. All those iOS devices sell because of the apps. Now those apps can be better.
That argument casts them solely as the profit-thirsting capitalists that they no doubt are, but which may take a back seat in many decisions they make. Maybe these improvements have indeed been underway for a long time and was the eventual outcome of a very long game. If that’s the case, no one’s happier than me, because it’s what I hoped for all this time.
But the very best is yet to come: follow this path of eliminating bottlenecks to its logical conclusion, and what’s at the end is our old friend the centralizing, moralizing, monopolizing App Store. The doors are already opening, with TestFlight bringing halfway competent beta management without having to ship cryptography busywork around. I can’t say which year, but I’m already looking forward to Craig Federighi, as is his wont, picking out “app distribution where you’re not in control” as his favorite previous version shortfall to make fun of during WWDC, in the tradition of green felt and fake leather. Maybe he’ll get a hair joke in too.