Exiting the rat race: a story of an iPhone developer’s departure

Dan Grigsby, best known for his Mobile Orchard blog for iPhone developers, has decided to hang it up per his recent blog entry which was also reported in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Dan draws an excellent parallel between two historic situations involving “ask permission” environments and the current situation involving Apple’s iPhone and its increasingly more restrictive development environment:

In the mid nineties, ahead of even Amazon.com, I founded one of the earliest e-commerce companies. At that time, most banks forbid Internet credit card transactions. They were fearful, so they enacted policies that blocked innovation. Of course that wasn’t universal: a few banks bucked the trend and, together with entrepreneurs like me, created a new sector of the economy. Pedants will point out that we still needed a bank’s permission; more reasonable readers will observe that there was no single daddy entity whose approval we required.

Early last decade, at roughly the same time and in parallel, I created a company like PayPal. Person-to-person payments threatened the banking establishment to such an extent that we were routinely told PayPal-like transactions were criminally illegal. A decade later, Wired Magazine placed PayPal as the cornerstone of the future of money.

The innovation in both of these examples made the establishment uncomfortable — they’d have stopped us at the gates had they been able too. Apple can, at their least bit of discomfort.

The lessons here should be relatively obvious: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Apple can exercise what is in effect an absolute veto over any particular iPhone application. Of course, there is no shortage of applications that will make Apple uncomfortable as a corporation; there are tons of blog entries about iPhone app rejections of questionable merit.

It makes me uncomfortable that those that dare call Apple out are usually dismissed. It takes high-profile iPhone developers and bloggers to finally put their virtual feet down and say “enough is enough, I’m quitting this rat race because even if you win you’re still a rat.”

Apple’s tightening of the chokehold, telling developers exactly what programming languages they can use (Objective-C, C, C++, or Javascript), and even then placing developers completely at their mercy, denying the App Store placement of what would otherwise be useful applications, is a recipe for inevitable bad PR and a peasants’ revolt. This is something I would have expected a company to have done back in the 1980s; it is woefully out of place in 2010. The irony of this, is that the Apple Computer that brought us the Apple II computers and the original Apple Macintosh was much more freedom- and hacker-friendly than today’s company.

The most discomforting thing, is that Apple is much closer to the rule than the exception. My best arguments against buying Apple’s iPhone also apply to any number of other products, most notably the Blackberry series and Microsoft’s Kin. (While Google is not exactly squeaky clean, they aren’t being nearly as restrictive in development of applications for Android-based phones such as the Droid and the Nexus One.) The most promising freedom-friendly smartphone, the Neo Freerunner, is being made in very small numbers and is disproportionately priced given its featureset.

Maybe Dan Grigsby can get Apple’s attention in ways others can’t. No one developer or blogger will be able to effect the type of change truly needed; it’s going to take a mob of angry developers to abandon Apple before they take notice.