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Apple's growing pains, culture of secrecy and the iPad


On Saturday, when you plug in your shiny new iPad and peruse the App Store for apps, you'll see 'HD' or 'XL' designations for iPad-specific apps. You may wonder what that's all about.

It's about a lack of solid information, driven by a top-down policy of secrecy. When a company like Apple fosters a culture of anxiety amongst third-party associates and low-level employees, you're going to wind up with some bad decisions being made in the absence of clear policies.

True, the iPad offers more pixels than the iPhone, but it is hardly "HD" (whatever that means to begin with). Clearly, these suffixes are designed to let you know that they are "jumbo" versions of apps with more features than their iPhone companions, right? That may not be the case. While they might be bigger, they may not be badder. In fact, they may be more stripped down than their developers intended.

Why would these apps be less feature-filled than devs would want? It comes down to this: Apple's rush to innovation has caused a vacuum of information for developers. Around this vacuum lies fear. It is a fear generated by Apple as a byproduct of the company's own paranoia, favoritism, and lack of empowerment for middle managers unable to "think different" and use common sense. Apple is a powerhouse of innovation because it can control things completely, but the other edge on that sword is its own fear of losing control. The machine lurches forward, but is it sustainable?

How does this lead to the "HD/XL" mess? Since the App Store opened, the approval process has gone from completely secretive, unresponsive, and restrictive to slightly less secretive and a tiny bit more responsive (even proactive in parts), and it's grown even more restrictive in some ways but less so in others (boob apps vs. fart apps). What hasn't changed is Apple's notorious reputation for non-answers to developer questions. Developers, sensing the Last Great Gold Rush of their times, are scared witless about the approval process due to the previous crazy person behavior from Apple.

For example, did you know that Apple once started yanking apps that used the word iPhone in them? Apps named "X for iPhone," even as a secondary title to discern from iPod touch apps, were unceremoniously yanked -- the reasoning being that you can't use their trademarked names in your title. Fair enough, that could lead to confusion and messy titles, not to mention the trademark use... Except that when you're introducing an entirely new form factor you *might* want to allow some labeling.

Better yet, why not be proactive and tell developers (who aren't allowed to submit updates creating universal binaries of existing apps until post-launch) how they should go about distinguishing the iPad versions from previous versions. Again, consider the mentality of developers and two things in their minds: Apple can smite you without warning or provocation, and you have to be on the App Store with iPad apps on Day One in order to stake a claim. That's why there's an HD -- because Apple never gave devs a response on "how do we inform customers what version they are buying?"

Apple also didn't provide a good mechanism for choosing on the tech end (universal binary or updates involving universal binaries for an existing app). Oh, and you know all of this happened in the past 3 months, right? So, of course, iPad apps will be chock full of missing functionality due to the intense time pressure of producing a new app. Even reusing code, there's no way to add that much in 90 days. In producing iPad apps, developers had to name those apps *something* to tell the customer what was up and somehow HD stuck. XL is a variant, but HD will likely be the predominant suffix if our PR emails are to be believed.

The economic pressure of launching your app on Day One, coupled with the fear of Apple's behavior (unpredictable and devastating at times), has lead to a pretty wicked situation for developers, even the larger ones (where Apple reps still have to pass things up the food chain for rulings). I'd say it is something that won't scale, especially once Mr. Jobs exits the company. A culture built upon fear and strict top-level control tends to lose control when the top people are gone. Apple could founder badly should the company fail to instill the principal values that have made it a success.

There's more than just screwy names for apps, however. There's the little fact that as of 4pm Wednesday, Apple has yet to actually approve anything for the iPad, and that developers are getting jerked around by the company, yet again, because of the company's rigid adherence to a system of secrecy. It's precisely the sort of thing Anil Dash warned about several months ago. Except that, now, developers are getting "Removed from Sale" notices in iTunes Connect -- but Apple isn't saying why, or if they should resubmit, or what they should do to be on the store for the launch. What's a developer to do? There's nothing you can do, really. That's got to change.

In the end, Dash's post says it all. Secrecy won't scale. Apple's innovations have come at a cost to the people working on those innovative platforms. OS X debuted as a beta, as did the iPhone variant, although most customers don't realize it (how many even remember the phone launched with no App Store?). There has been an unprecedented level of secrecy around the iPhone OS and apps, and perhaps we're seeing the last gasps of an antiquated system being blown away by the inevitability of more openness when dealing with software development.

Apple can't do it alone; the app review team is treading water every day by some accounts, and it's no secret that the company pushes engineers and other employees to the brink of exhaustion. While secrecy is important in a competitive market, I hope Steve's ambitions with the iPad extend beyond consumer adoption. I hope they extend to opening up a little more of Apple's ecosystem to the very people who wish to help it succeed.

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