ipad round two, software distribution

Regarding the iPad shortly after it’s unveiling Wednesday, Holmes Wilson of the Free Software Foundation said:

This is a huge step backward in the history of computing. If the first personal computers required permission from the manufacturer for each new program or new feature, the history of computing would be as dismally totalitarian as the milieu in Apple’s famous Super Bowl ad.

Many people were crossing their fingers that the iPad would have an open environment for distributing apps. Something like Macintosh and Windows PCs have had since their inception. Aside from the obvious benefits to Apple in having an app store that supports their hardware platform with a cut of software sales, the App Store is a great benefit to both consumers and developers.


People don’t buy software. Now that’s a gross generalization. Obviously, some people buy software. But really, only under very specific circumstances. Maybe you need to buy Word so you can edit your work documents at home. Maybe you, like me, suffer from an addictive hobby like photography and need Photoshop or some reasonable facsimile. But your average Bob, Joe, and Sally… they don’t buy software. In this article (profanity, be warned), Guy English of Tapulous states:

“Software” is dead, don’t bother putting that word on a sell sheet. Have you written “a program” recently? That’s nice, find a place in line behind all the other nerds but try not to step on the Coke-bottle glasses they tend to drop. “Oh … you’ve developed an application … is it something my doctor would know about”? People, lots and lots of people, people who have no idea what software even is, will download Apps like they’re snacking on potatoe chips.

Why is this the case? Well, there are a number of reasons. I can think of a few.

  • Safety- Your Mom and Dad, your cousin who is a contractor, your friend’s son on the varsity football team, all have heard horror stories about viruses, spyware, and identity theft. In fact, they very well have experienced these horror stories, and lived to tell about them. The App Store is a very comforting environment. There is no fear. The ‘app’ you’re downloading has been well looked over. It’s not going to steal your bank information, it won’t delete all your files (it can’t), and it’s not going to flood your computer with popups and background processes that slow it down. I’ve been using computers since I was old enough to sit at a desk chair, and I know very well how to avoid these problems. But even to me, the thought of buying something from the App Store is comforting.
  • Simplicity- When the iPhone first came out, the ease of the interface surprised us all. You must admit, it was a giant leap in human-computer interaction. Pointing and touching things connects with an innate part of what it is to be a human. This has led to software that is within the grasp of anyone. No complicated commands, no keyboard shortcuts for power users. It’s a level playing field, accessible to everybody. Don’t believe me? Watch this video of a one-year-old using an iPhone:
  • Installation- Finding and installing software on PCs is a nightmare. There are so many distribution methods, like installing from a disk you bought in a store, downloading an installer file, or a .zip with an executable in it. Or even digital distribution like the Steam online game store. This is all very confusing to people. Maybe not you, you’re reading a blog. You might not be intimidated by finding and installing software, but regular people are. Let’s not even bring up open source software. I know it’s gotten better in the last few years, but it is still not for your average person to discover, acquire, and install software on a regular basis.

Average consumers do not see the App Store as limiting. It’s actually freeing! They feel free to explore, experiment, and buy things, totally uninhibited by their non-computer-savviness.


Say you have an idea for your next great Windows application. How are you going to advertise it, distribute it, charge people for it? Post it on your website, and link everyone on twitter? PayPal? Donation based? Shareware? Try to find a publisher that doesn’t think your idea is stupid, and fail to cut a good deal because you aren’t a business person?

Now let’s see how this looks on the App Store. I have a great idea. I can make this really great app. It will have a touch interface that everyone can pick up quickly. Once published it will instantly be available to millions of people. It will likely show up in the “New” apps section, on the front page of the App Store in front of a million eyes. The only publishing fee is a flat 30 percent of sales, which is very likely less than a developer is able to negotiate from a traditional publisher. As covered above, there is very little in the way of consumers buying and downloading my app. It’s a scenario they’re very used to.

How is this not a good idea? Unless, perhaps… are you one of those software pirates? Rest assured. The iPad will be hacked. It will support multi-tasking, you will be able to illegally download all the programs you want. Someone will release a browser with flash. And you can quit crying. In fact, now you won’t even need to pay for a phone tied to a long-term contract!


Everyone I hear complaining about the iPad is really just someone who is so deeply invested in their current computing platform, they can’t bear the thought of letting go of the things they hold dear. I appreciate the sentiment, but really, we need to move forward.

Now I’m not hoping that Apple becomes a monolithic company. I don’t want using my computer to feel like participating in socialism. But you know that won’t happen. Other people will step up and take a piece of the pie. There are Android based tablets that will be out even before the iPad. Maybe Google Chrome will shift focus a little to take this new kind of computing into account. Maybe the Microsoft surface technology will be worked into a new handheld device.

In any case, computing is changing. In my opinion, for the better. I’m on board.

post script

Let’s not forget that there is a free and open way to release apps on both the iPad and iPhone. They’re called web apps. Ask Google about them. They just released a Google Voice web app to circumvent their native app’s rejection from the App Store. Further, look at Chrome OS. Google is building an entire operating system around web apps. Clearly one of the most influential tech companies in the world thinks they’re going to become a big part of how we use computers.

January 29, 2010 at 11:22 am

Thought I’d add this great quote from Steve Gillmor in the comments:

No wonder developers are already complaining about only having 90 days to write the first wave of software … they’re more afraid of being left out than locked in.

Chuck, February 1, 2010 at 10:42 am

@skoda on App.net @technochocolate on App.net