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Joe Hewitt: On Middle Men (joehewitt.com)
101 points by mqt on Nov 13, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 33 comments



I'm pleased to note that a lot of people have realized that taking part in the iPhone (and other locked down mobile devices) ecosystem is sharecropping. Obviously, the landowners have a strong desire to stick with the sharecropper model...I've just never understood why developers are voluntarily going there, when there are so many other ways to spend ones time and effort that don't involve begging Apple for scraps.


Technically, sharecropping is better. In Sharecropping, the landowners share risk with the sharecropper.


It's obvious why developers flock to the iPhone...

Using your analogy, it's better to be a sharecropper making money than a farmer whose crops sell for nothing. The iPhone is a goldmine for developers... in my experience it's much easier to make money selling apps than building a website.

There may be more money total to be made on a big website, but the iPhone makes it pretty easy for one guy to make a living.


"... it's better to be a sharecropper making money than a farmer whose crops sell for nothing. The iPhone is a goldmine for developers... in my experience it's much easier to make money selling apps than building a website. ..."

You are both right and wrong. An alternative way of looking at it: 'find a problem, take a risk and look for alternatives which have a much higher potential payoff'. Having said that you have to choose your battles carefully. But I wonder in Apples search for "purity"[0] there is a lot of "muck" that could be made money finding alternatives for disgruntled developers.

[0] As a side note there was a gallery of images of Jobs floating around of un-released images. One particular image stuck out more than any other that might help explain why the iPhone distribution platform is broken for developers. I looked at one image of Jobs in this house with no furniture save for a very expensive looking sound system. Could jobs aesthetic and psychology for pure look & sound be behind the approval process?


please do tell. what are the "other ways"?

no other app market has the audience that Apple has

let's not even mention the Android marketplace -- it is still to nascent.

so what are the "other ways" please? do tell


what are the "other ways"?

no other app market has the audience that Apple has

So, I say, "I don't want to be a sharecropper", and you ask me where else you can be a sharecropper that treats you better.

I'm not talking about app markets, at all. I'm talking about being a software developer. As a software developer, you have damned near infinite options for making a living. And a lot of those options provide more dignity, and more money, than being Apple's bitch.

The notion that selling iPhone apps is a "gold mine" for developers is a bit like saying the lottery is a good investment strategy. Yes, some developers make a lot of money from iPhone applications. Most do not. I suspect that building products for the much wider general software market or the web market would be a much more profitable path for your efforts (at least, that's been where I've placed my bets, and where I plan to continue placing my bets in the future).


The web market works, of course; the app store is just a specific distribution channel that has its advantages over the web:

* everyone who needs to do something on their iPhone goes to search the app store even though a web app could serve their needs better

* users like the reviews and trust apple not to allow harmful apps in the store

* the app store provides an easy way to charge your users


the app store provides an easy way to charge your users

My understanding of the process of selling iPhone apps is this:

1. Pay $99 to become an "iPhone Developer"

2. Build your application, taking care not to violate any of the known rules Apple has put forth.

3. Submit your application. Wait for a response. Sometimes for a very long time.

4. Either get notification that your app has been accepted, or receive a terse note of rejection, that might explain why it has been rejected. If the former, celebrate, and maybe start making money...odds are, it'll make a few bucks a day. If it's a knockout app without competition you could make a lot of money (though iPhone apps tend to trend downward in revenue pretty dramatically after an initial spike, so you have to be thinking of your next app pretty quickly).

If you receive a rejection, however...the fun and excitement and "easy" times continue:

5. You study the rejection notice, the Apple guidelines, and random blog posts on the Internet to try to figure out what you've done wrong in your application. You make changes, and go back to step 3. Lather, rinse, repeat. Your application may never be made available in the App Store, it's up to Apple.

Optional step 6 (assuming repeated, seemingly arbitrary, rejection): You blog about your pain, and people share your woe and commiserate with you about their own difficulties with the App Store process. Maybe, if you're a big name developer or blogger, somebody from Apple takes another look at your app, and things begin again at step 3. Maybe you get ignored.

And, of course, every time you release a new version or you build a new app, you get the joy of doing it all again.

This process not only does not seem "easy" to me, it seems like the kind of tedious bureaucratic bullshit that I intentionally became an entrepreneur to avoid. Hell, I've shaped my entire life around avoiding stuff like that.

everyone who needs to do something on their iPhone goes to search the app store even though a web app could serve their needs better

So what? You're jumping through hoops to reach one particular niche market, when the world is wide and their are billions of people who don't use iPhone apps for everything. Developers being so damned eager to jump through those hoops, generally in exchange for a pittance, has just made other companies start trying to build their own fences around their own little patches of land and start their own little app stores, so developers have to become sharecroppers to reach those users. This is not a good thing. Apple is not doing developers any favors with the App Store.

users like the reviews and trust apple not to allow harmful apps in the store

So what? User trust and loyalty can be earned in many other ways. Provide a forum, an open issue/support tracker, testimonials, a clear and generous refund policy, etc. And, of course, web apps can't (generally) harm someone's machine...so, there is no "harmful" web app stigma to worry about. If you're taking someone's money in exchange for software or services, PayPal and Google Checkout provide good assurances to buyers that you aren't going to defraud them or misuse or expose their credit card details.

In short, the "advantages" you mention are all on the side of web apps, not iPhone apps. The only real advantage to the iPhone App Store is that if you want to reach iPhone users directly, it is the only way to do so. So, we probably will eventually release a couple of iPhone applications...but they will be mainly intended as marketing tools, and not expected to be a source of revenue. And, I'll probably pay someone to deal with all the BS of getting the app into the store, because I sure as heck don't want to deal with it.

Our WebKit-targeted theme, on the other hand, we worked on very early in the life of the iPhone, and consider it an extremely important part of our product. We update it regularly when new phones come out, to make sure it always works well with any WebKit based phone browser.


"... 'I'm pleased to note that a lot of people have realized that taking part in the iPhone (and other locked down mobile devices) ecosystem is sharecropping': please do tell. what are the 'other ways'? ..."

Games: In the days prior to consoles, the Web the only way you could get games was by going to the store and buying them in a box. But some smart folks worked out a way to by-pass the stores and go direct. Id software teaming up with Apogee to avoid sharecropping their product on the shelves of computer stores.

Web: When the web came along it was difficult to set up a web server, web page or forum for most in the early days. Geeky types could sidestep places like geocities for web-pages and AOL for access by getting their own machines, building their own Linux stacks connecting to ISPs and hosting their own web services.

Blog: If you don't want to be reliant on commercial services like MT or even the free ones like Wordpress there is nothing stopping you getting your own machine with a full stack of software using your own software. Dave Winer does this at http://scriping.com

You don't need to be in the system to use it. For each example I've given above users had the choice to work entirely within the restricted stack and somehow subvert it. The big problem here is while the Internet is open the telephone/wireless system is not. But if enough people. companies build systems with a workaround even this won't be as much a problem at some time in the future. In the case of the iPhone you can just as easily create a iPhone interface via open technologies and you are not locked into Apple. A combination of technology problems and mindset.


"Middle men exist to reduce the cost of getting a product from A to B"

This isn't the whole story. Good middle men also add value in any number of ways (editorialising, structuring relationships, adding trust).

Disintermediation isn't always the answer. Becoming a better middle man sometimes is.


IMHO, all of the supposed advantages of a middleman can be provided by an optional (important word) neutral third party (cnet downloads.com virus free downloads for example). I agree with the article, I see very little value in middlemen.


Agree. Advertising networks are middle men. So, Google is one of the biggest, most successful, and most useful middle men in history.


I recently attended a talk by a WebKit developer employed by Apple. The topic of the talk was advanced CSS techniques. The speaker demonstrated some incredible capabilities that WebKit has added to CSS, including transition animations, 2D and 3D positioning and transformation, and gradient generation (to name a few). When he combined these techniques into a demo web site along with the HTML5 video element, I was blown away.

Unfortunately, Joe is correct that "Web technology is still relatively weak, and improving slowly." On the iPhone (and, to a lesser extent, on the desktop) there is no comparison between the quality of native apps and the quality of web apps. Native apps still afford much more to the developer. Yet the web stack has proven to be very developer and user friendly. Unfortunately, it is crippled by the browsers (especially one browser in particular...).

Somehow we need to accelerate the empowerment of the web stack. One way to do this is to diminish the power of various "native" stacks. Ironically, Apple is one of the companies leading the way in this regard. The latest version of iTunes is almost entirely WebKit based. Mobile Safari on the iPhone can use all those amazing CSS capabilities that other browsers can't yet, even on the desktop.

In the end, I have to agree with Google's strategy: bet big on HTML5. Eventually, all apps will be web apps (though hopefully they won't require a native app -- the browser -- to run). I just don't know what to do in the interim while the web stack is still crippled by the browsers.


"Eventually, all apps will be web apps"

I keep hearing this, especially from the Cappuccino guys, and it strikes me as a bit of a stretch. For it to be true, HTML/JS/CSS would have to stretch dramatically to accommodate all the functionality of existing OS frameworks, except they'll also have to be platform independent. Even if this happens, it'll be yet another layer on top of the current stacks, but will have to perform as well as software written for the layer below.

It might be plausible, but I don't think it's a given. "The web" has barely gotten around to doing roundrects easily, let alone have the abilities to allow you to implement something like InDesign, Maya or Cubase using its technologies.

"Some apps"? Sure. "Most apps"? I can even see that -- consumer apps and basic business apps the web can do really well. But "all apps"? [citation required].


> HTML/JS/CSS would have to stretch dramatically to accommodate all the functionality of existing OS frameworks

Yes, that's my point, and I think a major point of the article. It's getting there, but very very slowly. The main reason for that is the required consensus of the various browser vendors. There is nothing inherent to the web model (apps built with HTML/CSS/js and distributed by visiting web URLs) that makes it impossible to do everything you can do with "native" UI framework X.

> let alone have the abilities to allow you to implement something like InDesign, Maya or Cubase using its technologies.

The UIs for those apps could easily be implemented using web technologies. The number crunching would require an extension to our current set of web technologies, like Google's native client. JavaScript implementations have come a long way in recent years, but not that long. ;-)

Still, the point is not that all apps can currently be written using web technologies. The point is that it's theoretically possible and that the world is moving in that direction. Sure, there are barriers to overcome. So, let's overcome those. It's not impossible. It's not even that difficult.


I'm not sure that InDesign's UI could be done with current tools -- there's a lot of hardcore typography and image manipulation going on there at levels of precision that make pixel-perfect look slapdash.

Still, I take the point, but it still seems to me much more like something that would be theoretically possible than anything that will actually come to pass. As you say, to really make this happen, you have to stop limiting the progress of HTML, and that means breaking out of the browsers.

But ... if you break out of the browsers, you fracture the platform, and that means you lose the incentive to make these apps web apps in the first place. If your HTML/JS/CSS stack isn't as platform and browser-agnostic as it can be, ultimately you end up with a platform-specific way of writing apps that competes with native apps, and that's a losing battle.

Putting that aside, I'm not sure there's case that all apps should be HTML/JS, either. We can do cool things with the web stack, but ultimately it's designed and optimised for sending pages and forms back and forth. We put up with that because there are a great many benefits in doing so, but there has to be a reason to write our apps that way -- reasons that things like iTunes and the Safari Web Inspector have, but lots of other desktop apps don't and won't.


If your HTML/JS/CSS stack isn't as platform and browser-agnostic as it can be, ultimately you end up with a platform-specific way of writing apps that competes with native apps

You mean like browser-specific CSS? Or IE6 hacks? Or layout and rendering inconsistencies?

Web apps are the future of mobile applications for the same reasons they're the present of desktop applications. Ease of distribution. Ease of iteration. The freedom to do what you want, how you want it, in a market that's guided by users, not a big company acting as gatekeeper.


[deleted]


Sorry, the definition of "web app" that I intended here is a UI written in HTML/CSS and scripted with JavaScript. Also, it's distributed over HTTP, and usually it relies on data and application logic that lives on a remote server. Currently, this basically means it runs in a web browser.

I agree with you that the distinction is blurring and that we should attempt to blur it even more.


"The latest version of iTunes is almost entirely WebKit based."

Much of the store frontend is, but I think you underestimate the staggering amount of code that goes into a desktop app like iTunes.


How would one go about using a webapp without a browser?


If all apps are written in HTML/CSS/js, why would your OS have 1 "native" app that runs all other apps? The OS would just run web apps directly. The OS's UI itself would be written in web technologies. Maybe Chrome OS will do this. Given the short period of time they've been working on it, I doubt it, but I can hope.

See http://shoptalkapp.com/blog/2009/10/15/the-real-web-os


Having browsers mean X apps that run other apps, not 1. I think it is sort of a dystopian vision to have the OS be the only party responsible for rendering apps. Having IE, Safari, Firefox & Chrome (and Flock, MobileSafari, Opera, ...) in the mix has really spurred a lot of innovation and there's no reason why the innovation will slow down.


> The OS would just run web apps directly

You know, that's basically what Microsoft tried to do with internet explorer, but they ran up against such vehement opposition I'm pretty convinced that's why the concept hasn't progressed.

Next up is Google with Chrome/OS/Android, will they be perceived as Evil also? Only time will tell.


This criticism applies to Facebook as much as it does to Apple. Facebook apps, though usually built with more web technologies, still live in a walled garden and require permission to operate.

"We're at a critical juncture in the evolution of software."

That's been true for the last 20 years. The software ecosystem evolves to meet users' needs; the walled gardens have their place and the free-for-all areas have theirs.


Hewitt's criticism does not apply directly to Facebook. Facebook does not act as a gatekeeper. Facebook does not require approval or review before launch and operation of an application.


But it does rule the platform with an iron fist, and the rules and APIs drastically change every 4-6 months. Ask Zynga, Slide or RockYou.


Facebook does require approval prior to launch in the App Gallery. Given all the recent scams within Games I am fairly certain that Facebook is getting far more aggressive about what gets into the Gallery.

Apple is not perfect but beyond the App Store one can deploy an iPhone App within a company via the enterprise deployment.


It does. Replace "mobile device" with "social network", and any other occurrence of"mobile" with "social" and give it a read. Glass houses and all that.


In short, the mobile web needs better tools, better standards, and better browsers

Agreed.

and it needs them fast, before the only technologies that matter are the ones controlled by the gatekeepers.

This is what I don't understand. Why is there a time limit? Why wouldn't we expect things to play out in mobile just as they did on the desktop, with web apps moving from nonexistent to peripheral to ubiquitous over many years? Web developers were able to work around the limitations of Internet Explorer -- not without pain and suffering, but well enough. So why wouldn't we expect them to work around the limitations of mobile browsers?


Hewitt is dead wrong on his definition of middle men. They are there to facilitate and earn a profit. Nothing to do with lowering cost. They increase cost. Period.

Frankly, I think he's being a bit of a whiner about the whole thing. There are what, 100k apps in the store? If they weren't QCing it would be 1,000,000 and the percentage of shit apps would be MUCH higher than it is now (and it is through the roof right now).


If the middleman brings more value to the end-customer than he increases the cost, then (s)he is a net win, and cutting the middleman out reduces the value to the end customer.

Note how that doesn't contradict what you say, which is still literally true; the question is whether your literal truth actually matters.

The Internet makes some of the old "easy" ways of being a middleman irrelevant and open the field wide open in a lot of ways, but it will never make it impossible for a middleman to bring more value to the customer than they cost. It's just that competing with "customer goes direct to the source" just got a lot harder.


unfortunately i think joe is underestimating the power of the carriers in this one. Look at how Verizon cripples devices, and how expensive unlimited data plans are. Native app that can work without connectivity are still a huge advantage. If you look at the top selling apps, most can work without data.


Govt is the biggest Middle Men between Tax Payers & Consumers.




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