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TUAW Interview: Ambrosia's Andrew Welch on the iPhone update and iToner

Mat Lu

As we reported yesterday, Ambrosia Software is working hard to get their iPhone ringtone maker iToner working again after it was broken by the iPhone 1.1.1 update. Last evening the president of Ambrosia Software, Andrew Welch, was kind enough to sit down with us (virtually, anyway) to comment on the iPhone update and iToner, as well as to share some of his outlook as a third-party developer more or less beholden to Apple's business decisions. I think he draws an important distinction between the sort of hacking that went into the actual third-party iPhone applications and what iToner does. Speaking as he does from long experience, I think he has an interesting perspective on the development of third-party applications in the Apple ecosystem.

Do you think Apple has done something unjust in locking down the iPhone the way that they have with the latest update?

Unjust, I would say no. It's Apple's product, and their license clearly stipulated what was allowed and was was not with the iPhone. I also understand their reasoning for doing what they have done. Agreeing with what they are doing is another matter.

Here's the thing. One of the things that Apple is very good at is creating excellent user experiences. For something general, like a computer, they can't create everything that people want to use... so Apple (grudgingly sometimes it seems) nurtures a developmental community for the Mac.

For devices like the iPod and the iPhone, they are limited in scope enough that Apple believes they can control every aspect of the product, and end up giving the user a better experience than if the Philistines were allowed to put anything on it they want to.

I understand this rationale, and to some extent, I agree with it. However I do believe that Apple is erring a bit too much on the side of controlling everything on the iPhone. So is it unjust? No. Is it unwise? That depends on your perspective.

As a third party developer, I absolutely want to develop for the iPhone. I think I can create some fantastic software for the iPhone that people will love, absolutely. However I do understand Apple's opinion that if they control every aspect of the phone, people won't end up with a lousy user experience.

So where is the line? What do think would be reasonable degree of freedom for third-party devs?

Apple is not marketing the iPhone as a PDA, so I think to an extent they don't care if it has the range of applications that Palm, the Blackberry, and other devices have. Apple is marketing the iPhone as the best damn phone money can buy. To an extent, it is. However I am reminded of their decision to not license the MacOS way back when... and an inferior but for more "promiscuous" standard is what ended up taking over the market.

There is slightly less of danger of that here, I think, because of the relatively limited scope of the device, but Apple is taking on an awful lot by saying that they are going to develop everything that goes onto the phone. We can all see the shortcomings in a number of areas... no to do list, for instance. No search in the list of contacts. These are things that no one can come up with a solution for except Apple.

It's a gamble. Apple thinks they can pull it off. I hope they are right.

Well clearly many devs would like access to the iPhone, but do you think Apple owes anything to third-party developers who work on a closed platform that Apple has not provided an official SDK for (e.g. besides the iPhone, the Apple TV)?

I don't think Apple owes third party developers anything. If they want to make it a closed device like they did the iPod, they can. The iPod was very limited in scope, and they did a fantastic job with it. The iPhone however... people expect much more. I think Apple is biting off an awful lot by taking on everything themselves.

That said, they certainly have and will continue to "bless" certain developers (like Google) with access to a way to develop for the iPhone if Apple finds the partnership beneficial. The key is that Apple wants total control. Again I understand the reasoning, but I question whether it's the best long-term strategy if they want this to be the device that meets everyone's needs

So specifically with regards to iToner do you feel that Apple has wronged Ambrosia in some way?

I'm frustrated, honestly. With iToner, we worked very, very hard to make sure we did things the right way. We didn't hack into the phone at all, we didn't "jailbreak" it - we used the same APIs that iTunes uses to put files on the iPhone, and we put those ringtones in the user area of the phone. This is why iToner ringtones survived OS updates.

Then Apple rolled out their iTunes music store sale of ringtones... and they broke iToner. The way they broke it seemed excessive, but understandable from a programming point of view, so we rapidly came out with a fix. The first few weeks of iToner's life was nothing but coffee, code, and sleepless nights for people here at Ambrosia, so as such, sure, it's frustrating that it's broken yet again.

We're not putting anything but data on the iPhone, and we're doing it in the right way, and we're putting it in the user area of the iPhone. Apple is intentionally making sure that products like ours don't work. That I think is a mistake - it's as if in an iPhone OS update, Apple decided that MP3s you got from ripping a CD should no longer play on your iPhone, and you should instead buy them from their store.

So I take it your position is basically that the user area of the phone should belong to the user and it's not really fair for Apple to artificially restrict what you can put there?

Absolutely. Apple should no more be controlling what ringtones I want to use than they should be controlling what music I can listen to, or what photos I can look at.

Here's a good analogy, I think. Apple came out with their online store, and they charged for music. They said "We know you can get music from elsewhere, but we're going to make the user experience so good that you'll want to get it from us." And guess what? They were right, it worked!

The tack they are taking with the ringtones, though, is not "We'll provide such great ringtones that you'll want to buy from us" but rather "This is all you're ever going to be able to use, too bad if you want to use something else." I think they took a winning formula, and got it entirely backwards.

I fully understand that much of Apple's behavior is the result of signing deals with multiple "devils" in terms of AT&T and the various music labels. So to an extent, I think some of the choices that Apple is making now are not their own. But I find it amazing that they'd take the exact opposite approach of providing fantastic content and a fantastic user experience to make you want to buy music from them.

I hope that this is not the attitude they are going to take going forward, because if they no longer focus on delivering the best possible content in the best way - and using that as a selling point - and instead try to sell things by restricting what you can buy, well. I think it's really sad.

Do you yet have a good idea what it will take to get iToner working again? Is Ambrosia prepared to more or less continually respond with updates?

Yes, we know what it will take to get iToner working again, and we've been working non-stop since the iPhone 1.1.1 OS came out. It really caught us by surprise, and [that's] why we said iToner ringtones would work with future iPhone OS updates: we put our data in the user area of the iPhone, and [Apple] would have to specifically go out of their way to block our software from working.

Sadly, that's what they did. It's really as if they decided one day to not allow you to play MP3s you purchased from elsewhere on your iPhone. So fixing it for us means a lot of work, because we have to figure out exactly how Apple decided to target us and block our ringtones from working. We'll fix iToner to work with iPhone 1.1.1. Our fear is that Apple will then once again block us from working.

That to me is a dance I don't look forward to dancing, but... I think we're writing a very legitimate application, and we're doing it the right way without hacking anything. I think we have every right to be able to exists.

But as of right now it's Ambrosia's policy to continue updating iToner as necessary in response to Apple's updates?

Obviously Apple holds all the cards in this game. I would really hate to have our customers have our app constantly broken and re-broken by Apple. We know a LOT of people at Apple that own and use iToner... and they love it! So yes, it is our policy to continue to make iToner work. It's almost become personal now, in addition to wanting to do the right thing and support our customers.

However if the day comes that we decide Apple is going to constantly target us, and make our lives miserable, we would have to evaluate what to do at that point. I hope that day never comes, I love iToner. I use it myself.

Is there any chance that you'd offer users a refund for iToner if it gets too difficult to keep up with the changes?

Yes, we've been in the Mac software business for 15 years. My name means a lot more to me than $15. If people want a refund, we will refund their money. It sucks, because it's happening due to forces beyond our control, but ultimately it is our product, and therefore our responsibility to make it work.

Ambrosia is one of the older Mac shareware publishers; do you feel like Apple's relationship with third-party devs has changed recently/over the years?

Apple is a business. When you're useful to Apple, they are very friendly and helpful. When a competitor of yours is useful to Apple, they will embrace the competitor. It's just business in that sense. When you do something Apple likes, or Apple can demo well, they love you. Otherwise they largely ignore you - I think this has been fairly constant over the years. That's not a criticism, by the way. I think it makes good business sense to operate in that manner. I can't say I've seen that aspect of things change much over the years.

What has changed is that Apple is producing more compelling products, and they are selling more of them. That's fantastic for us, since we feed off of them to an extent. Apple is producing exciting technologies these days more than in years past, and in that way, it's more fun to be working with them.

Do you have any advice for other developers who might be thinking of working on one of Apple's closed platforms?

My advice would be to go into it with eyes wide open. That means knowing that you're an ant that's scrambling around underneath the legs of an elephant. One step in the wrong direction, and you're toast. If you decide to develop for a platform that Apple tells you to stay away from, you have to be prepared to get crushed. That's why we're a little bothered by iToner being squashed as it has been... we went out of our way to do the right thing, not put any code on the phone, not hack it, etc. and yet still we get trampled.

I'm certainly not trying to play the victim here, but it is somewhat disheartening to work your guts out on a great product, only to have it seemingly senselessly terminated. So if you want to develop for a closed Apple platform... be prepared for the heartache that may come, no matter how careful about it you try to be.

Lastly, is there anything else you'd like to add?

And to end on a positive note, we're coming out with a product called WireTap Studio that I think is going to impress the hell out of you and your readers. It's a new way of thinking about recording and editing digital audio that I think breaks new ground... and it doesn't depend on a closed Apple platform!

Thanks to Andrew for taking the time to speak with us. We'll have more on WireTap Studio in the near future.

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