What Steve Jobs Did Not Know About Apps

Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media

“Apple’s iPhone and App Store has, thus, proven that walled gardens are not necessarily a bad thing, at least not for a successful digital marketplace to emerge.”—Pelle Snickars

The following post is by Pelle Snickars, co-editor of Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media. For more on the book, you can read the introduction or Patrick Vonderau’s post on What Can Be Learned from an iPhone Bill .

In January this year as Apple’s iPhone celebrated its five year birthday, its App Store surpassed half a million available apps with some 25 billion pieces of code downloaded (according to Mobile Statistics). Arguably, the iPhone iOS is—by just about any measure—the most innovative in the history of computing. It’s the combination of innumerable software apps and high performing slick machines that have made Apple into the world’s most valuable company. And since an iPhone5 is rumored to be on its way, the story will continue.

Too much has already been said and written about the visionary talent of the late Steve Jobs. Still, it is worth mentioning that even he was occasionally wrong. Apple has often been described as a “closed” company striving for total control. But it remains a true irony that externally produced apps, which helped to define the revolutionary iPhone, were not on Apple’s radar in 2007. Initially, the iPhone had nothing to do with apps at all.

Take a look at Apple’s initial iPhone television commercials for example on YouTube—not a word is mentioned about “apps”. When launched this device was marketed as a smart phone to surf, mail, and call. Nothing else. Apple, in fact, argued they had reinvented the phone, hence the name of the device—which was also missing the point since calling soon became a rather peripheral activity. Essentially, Apple perceived and marketed the iPhone as a web enabled and upgraded iPod.

Computer history often runs faster than anything else. Five years ago there was a lot of discussion as to whether Apple would allow external developers to write code for the iPhone. When Lev Grossman in Time magazine picked the iPhone as tech invention of the year 2007 he did so for one particular reason. To him, this was not a phone but a mobile computing platform. Grossman had, in fact, argued that Apple should let external coders develop software—and suddenly it seems Jobs changed his mind.

In mid October 2007 Jobs stated on the company blog—as always simply signed “Steve”—“Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have a Software Development Kit (SDK) in developers’ hands [out next year]. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users.” Hundreds of new applications? In July 2008 as the App Store opened there where 500 programs available—a year later there were 55,000 apps. During the summer of 2010 the amount of apps had approached a 250,000—and today there might be as many as 650,000 apps.

According to Technet the app economy in the U.S. is now responsible for almost half a million jobs. How could Jobs go so wrong? Well, who knows; after all one still does search the App Store in vain for an app to tell the future of media business.

Essentially two things can be learned. First, Jobs’s mistake points to the real challenges of anticipating the direction of digital media. Media history is never linear—but the digital domain seems even harder to predict. Second, externally produced apps did make Apple products more attractive, but the company never let go of control. The success of the iPhone and its subsequent App Store has not occurred in spite of control—but rather because Apple is in command. At a time when many argue for openness, open source, open access, keeping the web open etcetera, Apple has proven that consumers in fact like the opposite. Even if one personally disagrees, this remains worth thinking about. Closed systems, in short, seem better suited to commerce—notably with the exception of Google where “open” is the commercial concept. Apple’s iPhone and App Store has, thus, proven that walled gardens are not necessarily a bad thing, at least not for a successful digital marketplace to emerge.

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