Unbranding the Sheep: Building a House On The Corpses of Indie Developers

I use Apple products often. I own an iPhone, mainly because the alternative – the Blackberry – doesn’t really appeal to me. The fact that I already had AT&T as my wireless provider greased the skids. Therefore, I run iTunes on my PC, mainly because it’s mandatory for me to sync my iPhone, but also because I actually like to use it to organize my music (though that might change with Ubuntu adding out-of-the-box support for iPhones and iPods into Nautilus with the 10.04 LTC update. Here’s hoping the next iPhone update doesn’t break that). I even considered a MacBook as my next laptop until I realized that I run Linux anyway, which goes on laptops with better specs and about half the price, though that’s notwithstanding the fact that I actually, genuinely like OS/X and Snow Leopard. Let this paragraph preface what’s going to come afterwards by saying that I’m not a frothing fanboy that hates Apple because I need something to hate. In fact, they have good products, two of which I don’t go a day without using.

However, after the past couple of weeks, I have to say that I look at my iPhone in disgust. This is because I feel that my patronage is contributing to an environment that is anywhere from harsh to outwardly hostile on the people that make my phone the great device that it is.

Everyone knows by now that lately, Apple has pulled two types of products that the store previously carried. First, it took out applications of a sexual nature, then it removed Wi-Fi stumblers, which are used to find available Wi-Fi networks. In both cases, the products were pulled in the same way: with no advance notice to the developer, except an email after the fact.

I’ve heard some people actually cheering this move. They feel that it gets rid of the crap that’s on the App Store, making it a better place to shop, and for “good” developers to get their products across. This is short-sighted thinking. First off, they’re assuming that all of the applications that were removed were of low quality, which is up to the discretion of whoever purchases them. While I’m sure the Wobble app will never win any quality awards, there are people that bought the app, and enjoyed it, so it’s as presumptuous for someone to say that iWobble should have never been released as it is for me to say that Random Shitty Wii Game #4592 shouldn’t have been released. Somewhere, someone enjoyed both.

Secondly, they’re forgetting something: these are applications that were already green-lighted by Apple. That’s an important point on a number of levels. For one, it costs a lot of time and money to be able to develop for the iPhone, including factors such as the computer needed for development (a bare minimum of $599, for the lowest Mac mini, and it HAS to be an Intel-based Mac), Snow Leopard (updates are $29, and it HAS to be Snow Leopard, which is 10.5), and the time and money to develop the skills required to program in Objective-C and interact with the Cocoa Interface. All of this is just to get in the door (source), and then it takes hours upon hours of programming – and, if it’s a company with employees, money to pay them – to develop the application, which isn’t guaranteed to be accepted, as Apple has to approve anything before it’s let onto the iPhone. As John Carrol of ZDNet points out in his manifesto, Apple rejects apps for some pretty arbitrary reasons, such as the application possibly competing with a future product. That app is now useless, unless you decide to make a Blackberry version, which requires different programming languages and is subject to Research in Motion’s approval process. Once that application is greenlighted, it is on the service, and Apple takes 30% of the cut of the application. Keep that last point in mind, I’m going to go back to it.

The problem with taking out applications that have already been approved and on the service for anything other than a terms of service violation (like what happened with Molinker Inc., after they were caught astroturfing) is that it shows that Apple’s mind can and will change on a whim. “Oh, we approved you three months ago? Well, Phil Schiller lost a bet, so he’s pulling applications that start with the letter E, so sorry, sucks to be you”. The cause célèbre for the removal of the “sexy” applications? Some women complained that some applications might not be appropriate for children, despite the fact that 1) you have to be 17 to download them (it asks), and 2) a credit card is required to purchase apps, meaning you have to be 18 anyway. That’s it! Instead of making it more clear that certain apps are for certain users, it decided to pull the rug out from under developers that had their apps already approved on the store, with no notice, no warning, nothing. They screwed these developers, and didn’t even bother to kiss them first.

For a small business or a person developing applications and trying to establish themselves, this can be a major problem. Let’s say someone’s created an app that, after the initial burst of sales, has fallen into a pattern of selling one-thousand times a month, give or take, at $1.99 per sale. Take out Apple’s 30%, and you have $1,393 a month. That’s small potatoes for a bigger developer like Square-Enix or Popcap, but if you’re a one man team, that’s pretty good, and lets you use that money to put back into other applications that make a small business grow. So you’ve started taking classes to develop other skills, and are maybe even contracting some help for things such as art to back up the code to make something attractive and playable. In other words, you’re banking on your revenue stream. All of a sudden, Apple yanks that revenue stream away from you with no warning. Now what? Your revenue just went from an estimated $1,400 to $0 overnight. That can break a business, especially when Apple’s answer for you amounts to “tough tits”.

But now, at least developers of anything risqué know that anything construed as sexual – with no exception – are going to either get denied or possibly pulled, right? Not so fast. In a shocking display of arrogance and hypocracy, Apple has pulled apps like iWobble, while apps from Playboy, Sports Illustrated and others get to stick around. Apple’s PR reasoning – that these are well-known apps from companies that are socially accepted – is both hypocritical (because they’re saying that you have to have a revenue stream this high to ride the App Store and not get booted off) and disingenuous. As Nick Carlson at Business Insider notes, Apple is trying to get big companies to buy into the iPad.

The whole reason I’m even talking about the App Store on a gaming website is because it’s become a legitimate place to purchase and play video games. We’ve even reviewed a few iPhone games here as well. However, Apple forgets one thing: it wasn’t big companies that made the App Store what it is today, it was smaller companies. The most used apps on my iPhone aren’t from bigger companies, they’re TweetDeck, Stickwars and Cartoon Wars: Gunner. The first one is a small company, and the last two are games made by one-man teams who would be significantly affected if some special interest group dedicated to eliminating all violence against animated stick figures pressured Apple into pulling those apps. Apple doesn’t care. They can’t be held accountable for the numbers on the App Store because they don’t release them – and estimates are all all over the place. With the iPad already being slammed by bloggers and columnists who aren’t stridently pro-Apple, their only interest is bringing in big names to make it more attractive to the everyday consumer. It doesn’t hurt that Apple, just by being who they are, have a built-in defence mechanism of dedicated, almost sycophantic consumers who buy their products more for the sake of appearance and status than for their actual performance, and defend them voraciously. Maybe once I realize I’m completely locked into the iPhone at this point and will lose access to a lot of applications and games if I think of switching, I’ll defend them just as much.

This isn’t the first time Apple’s abused their smaller developers, either. They are notorious for either underpaying or stalling payments to developers, and Apple’s contract with them stipulates that if an application is returned, Apple’s 30% commission comes out of their pockets. While I don’t have any statistics backing this statement up, I’d be willing to bet they don’t screw around with payments to Activision and Square-Enix.

Considering all of this, why would a smaller developer build anything for Apple? After all, Apple seems to be building a very nice service on their backs with no thanks given. If anything, they’re “thanking” them by spitting in their faces. However, the alternatives are just as insufferable. The Blackberry has slightly more market share, but is not seen as a gaming platform in the slightest, catering instead to businesspeople. The Android isn’t there yet, with only a 5.2% market share. From a gaming perspective, that leaves the same options everyone else is trying to get away from: Microsoft and their pathetic Indie service, Sony’s minis, and the DSi’s high-priced, under utilized DSi service.

It’s the same story as always: for anyone developing as a small business, from games to anything else, they’re still at the mercy of companies that are outright using them so that they become large enough to lure the attention of bigger companies. In a way, it’s like a high school girl dating a plain guy with good grades just to make the captain of the football team notice. The smaller developers are learning now that once the football captain notices, they’re stuck at home with the Playboy application and a box of tissues. Apple might have cute TV commercials and pretty products, but the company is a brutal mistress to deal with. It’s too bad thousands of app makers learned the hard way.

POSTSCRIPT: One final note on this: there’s a clone called iWobble, which is available for HTC, who are in the news now because they’re being sued for patent infringement. The plaintiff? Apple, who are trying to litigate their competition out of the market with the same stunt Microsoft used on TomTom while trying to marginalize Linux. It should be noted that they’re taking on HTC and not RIM because HTC is smaller, and Apple can bully them out of court with stall tactics.

Keep this in mind next time you see Justin Long and John Hodgman on TV.

EDIT @ 5:36 EST, MAR. 7: The Wobble iBoobs application that I mentioned in this piece has been put back onto the App Store, per the author of the app himself, as stated in our comments section. This doesn’t hide the fact that the application should never have been removed, to go with the other thousands of applications that never should have been removed, and it doesn’t hide the fact that Apple has treated their smaller developers like dirt since the App Store for a long time. Therefore, even though Apple has started fixing their initial screw-up, the damage is done. Hence, I feel this article is still relevant.

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Christopher Bowen is the Associate Editor at Diehard GameFAN, and was previously a columnist at Not A True Ending. Having worked in the IT industry as a network security engineer for over five years before coming to DHGF, Christopher brings a unique, pro-consumer perspective to his work. His thoughts on how the gaming industry works behind the scenes, and how it affects the everyday consumer, can be read every weekend at Diehard GameFAN. In addition, he writes DHGF’s weekly Nintendo and Playstation Network download wrap-ups every Tuesday and Friday, respectively. Follow Chris on Twitter, or email him with questions and feedback.

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