Results tagged “ios”

What Developers Want

September 24, 2012

There are lots of different ways to measure how friendly a company is toward developers, and whether a tech company complies with the values that its developer community cares about. I'm a big believer in what I earlier called "radical institutional empathy". What this entails is not being an apologist for any one company or institution, but rather trying to understand its decisions within the context of what the people who work there must be trying to do.

The problem is, it's hard to do that in the current world of tech writing; people want to bring their own biases (things like whether a company is "good" or "bad", or whether a particular technology or strategy is "open") rather than applying a fairly consistent set of evaluations to all the players in a space.

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One useful recent example is the conversations about Twitter's APIs. When I wrote What Twitter's API Announcement Could Have Said, people both mistook it to be my personal feelings about what the company could have said, or my literal interpretation of what Twitter was trying to describe. It was neither. Instead, it was an attempt to show a developer community that's largely abandoned any attempt at logically understanding a platform's changes and is now fully in the throes of emotional responses to anything that happens. Now, I understand that Twitter's own communications have been part of the reason there's been that breakdown, but all big companies are bad at communicating. That's just a fact. So we have to have a more reasonable way of reading the tea leaves.

Comparing Oranges

Let's try applying a reasonably consistent set of commonly-held developer values to the flagship platforms of two of the tech world's favorite companies, Apple and Twitter. Obviously, the companies are wildly different in the audiences they serve and in what they provide to developers, but this is a useful comparison precisely because the loudest developer voices on both platforms comprise many of the same people.

Policy

Twitter API

Apple iOS

IP Practices

Has introduced the Innovator's Patent Agreement, an extensive new effort ensuring its software patents will only be used defensively, which makes developers optimistic. Has a history of aggressively pursuing patent protections, which even when justified open the door to ever-more-expansive interpretations of software patents, leading even sympathetic developers to worry.

Content Censorship

The company fought tooth-and-nail to avoid giving over a user's private information, defending the case against the government to the maximum of their legal abilities. The company refused to allow news to be published on its platform because it was "not useful".

Roadmap for Third Parties

Published an obtusely-worded but generally reasonable set of guidelines for third-party developers on its platform, without explaining how those guidelines align with its business model. There is no documented process of appeal for apps which are cut off. Publishes a concisely worded and clear set of extremely restrictive guidelines which are subject to change regularly. Has a well-documented process of appeal for apps which are cut off.

Competing with Developers

Told third-party developers to focus on analytics and value-add instead of read/write clients two years ago; Reiterated this recently. Hasn't shipped any apps that compete in other categories, but is tightening restrictions on apps in the read/write category. Provides no guidance beyond the platform terms as to which areas apps should avoid, but has expanded to digital wallet, voice search, podcasting, video chat, reminders, reading, game networking, and other apps in competition with third-parties that had released earlier apps on the platform.

Turning the Table

I understand that these comparisons are necessarily imperfect, and selective in their focus. Apple is very different from Twitter in that it plays the role of a payment middleman. (I find the defense that Apple allows ways around its platform shortcomings through use of the web to be spurious; If we grant it for Apple, then we'd have to grant it for Twitter. The web doesn't have these weaknesses.)

My point here is not to defend Twitter or Apple, though partisans of either company will undoubtedly say I'm being unfair to their favored platform. But rather, we should look fairly at their stances on important issues like free speech, intellectual property rights, self-expression of users and stability of developer opportunity when evaluating them.

Given that the most prominent pundits who've opined on the merits or weaknesses of these platforms often develop for both, I'd be curious to see how they interpret these facts about the company's positions in the context of how the companies see themselves and their goals.

Authentication

We can rightly be frustrated at Twitter having targeted some apps in its upper-right quadrant; Rather than simply waving off client developers, Twitter could have said "it'll get increasingly expensive and difficult to compete in that market" and it would have had the same chilling effect without being punitive. But if we are frustrated at that, then certainly we should consider that the majority of popular iOS applications which aren't games are in Apple's virtual upper-right quadrant. Maybe that's fine. If so, then it should be fine on any platform.

And if we think changing the rules of the game as developers are playing it is unfair, then clearly neither of these companies, nor any major platform company, can be considered to be fair. As I make the decisions for how my own company will invest in these various platforms, I feel reassured again and again that the open web is the safest long-term bet for retaining control over my own destiny.

Who benefits from iOS6's crappy maps?

September 19, 2012

The classic criticism that thoughtless Apple haters use against the company is that it makes products that are pretty but dumb. Usually those criticisms are by people who don't understand the value of a comprehensible user experience, frustrated by the reality that many people will eagerly trade the open-ended technologies of competitors for the simple and satisfying experience that Apple provides.

But this time, they're right: Apple's made a new product that actually is pretty but dumb. Worse, they've used their platform dominance to privilege their own app over a competitor's offering, even though it's a worse experience for users. This is the new Maps in iOS 6.

Walking Alone

Apple's used Google's mapping features since it introduced iOS with the original iPhone and iPod touch in 2007. Google provided the actual tiled images that make up the maps, search for venues on the maps, and directions to destinations by car, transit or walking.

Apple started acquiring mapping companies a few years ago, pursuing their typical path of trying to own the entire technology platform for critical features, both so they could exert business control over the technology and so that they could improve the experience. (iOS maps had lagged behind in implementing new Google Maps features like turn-by-turn directions and vector-based infinitely zoomable maps due to the tension between the companies after Google launched its Android mobile OS.)

But with iOS 6, Apple decided it was time to rip off the band-aid and replace Google's maps with their own. Not at all a surprise, given the company's history of controlling critical areas of functionality on its platforms. But what is surprising is that the user experience got worse.

Wrong Way

I've been using iOS 6 for a few months, and initially chalked up the problems I'd had to likely bugs that would be worked out as the software matured. Unfortunately, now that we all have access to the release version of iOS 6, it's evident that fundamental mapping features like venue search and directions are significantly worse than in the Google versions.

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Here in Manhattan, where I live, basic search by building names is profoundly degraded in Apple's maps search. "Bloomberg" doesn't find the Bloomberg Tower; on Google Maps it's the first result. Searching for its address "731 Lexington Avenue" yields that address on Lexington Avenue in Brooklyn. It's fine to think that perhaps I wanted the address in Bed-Stuy, but even appending "NY, NY" or "Manhattan, NY" still yields the Brooklyn address. Google maps has none of these comprehension issues. I understand this is due to Apple partnering with Tom Tom, whose maps are considered to be lower in quality than other players like Nokia, but I'm not informed enough to say with certainty whether that's the case.

Similar troubles plague the directions and routing features for drivers. I'd tried the driving maps for everywhere from the New Jersey suburbs to rural Mexico and found out-of-date road information, impossible directions and a general level of unreliability that I never recall seeing from Google maps, even when it first launched. I have only used the walking directions in Manhattan where Apple's new maps have worked fine, but in fairness, it's almost impossible to screw up walking directions when you're on the grid in Manhattan.

And then there's transit. While transit maps were the subject of some misinformation when they were originally removed during the iOS 6 beta releases, the fundamental truth is that, out of the box, Apple's maps have no transit features. One could argue that Apple's ostensible strategy of supporting lots of local transit apps that plug in to the primary maps experience is more scalable, and certainly Apple can offer a credible defense that collecting all of the non-standard data that powers local transit is unreasonably costly. Given that Apple has a bigger cash hoard than the vast majority of countries, it seems as if this is more an issue of priorities than resource constraints.

Whatever the case, I was happy to support the OpenPlans Kickstarter campaign to bring an open source-based transit experience to iOS 6. I hope it gets traction and becomes widely deployed on iOS 6 devices, both to improve the maps experience of users and so that this kind of functionality can be more driven by a community rather than Apple's whims.

There are other opportunities, too — iOS 6's abysmal maps should provide a real opportunity for apps like Foursquare which have great local search; I've been using Foursquare for almost all of my venue search and local searching since upgrading to iOS 6 and it's helped me out every time the native iOS 6 app let me down.

Why It Matters

Obviously, Apple's going to fix as many of these bugs as they can. I'm not pretending they're incompetent or somehow want to deny people access to good maps on mobile devices. But the simple fact is: When you buy an iOS 6 device, you get a worse experience for search and no ability to get transit directions out of the box, both of which are significant downgrades from iOS 5. Apple's taken features away (critics would say "crippled") from apps before, typically during major platform changes or when rethinking the fundamental architecture of an app. But in almost every one of those transitions, they've provided a transition period or staged upgrade path that didn't force users to bear the brunt of the new platform's weaknesses.

Apple made this maps change despite its shortcomings because they put their own priorities for corporate strategy ahead of user experience. That's a huge change for Apple in the post-iPod era, where they've built so much of their value by doing the hard work as a company so that things could be easy for users. I'm not suggesting (yet) that this is a pattern, and that Apple will start to regularly compromise its user experiences in order to focus on its squabbles with other tech titans. But history shows that dominant players in every era of operating system history have reached a turning point where they shift from the user experience and customer benefits which earned them their dominance to platform integration efforts which are primarily aimed at boxing out competitors. It'll be interesting to see which direction Apple's maps follow.

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