Right, sorry for the link-baity title.  But the thesis holds true. Long term, anyway.

Today the key note of Apple’s WWDC was presented, and a slew of new Apple products from hardware to software were unveiled.  Despite the fact that the hotly anticipated Apple Television (not to be confused with the Apple TV box unit) never did make an appearance, anyone who followed the presentation or at least read up on the results would find it hard to argue that Apple didn’t come out with guns ablaze.  The pricy new hardware is as beautiful as it is expensive.  The slick new OS Mountain Lion features are as pretty as the retina displays on the new Mac Book Pro. And the new integrated apps in the soon-to-arrive iOS6 look brilliant… and really familiar.  In fact, those new integrated apps are so familiar because they mimic a great deal of functionality of some of the most popular third-party-created apps in the iOS ecosystem.  And by taking the ideas that were germinated and then perfected in those third-party apps and integrating them tightly with iOS 6, Apple killed those apps and the entire ecosystem too.

First, let’s just accept that there is no finish line in this game. There’s no eventual winner. Apple’s the king of the tech and business world in so many ways right now, it’s not worth trying to argue that what’s coming is Apple’s demise. But this matter is bigger than Apple anyway, and Apple will do just fine finding its way in the post-app era. It probably just wont be too eager to see that era arrive.

Today, by eating the best apps cultivated in its own ecosystem, Apple made a few declarations: 1) Even though Apple creates beautiful objects with beautiful interfaces, they’re pretty unclear about what people actually want to do with pretty little things. 2) Apple feels no qualms about snatching success from its ecosystem developers, even when those developers show extreme loyalty to iOS. And 3) Apple sees no reason not to annoint winners in Software as a Service categories, and then integrating them tightly with their own applications as partners, the rest of the ecosystem be damned. iOS is not an open playing field or a level one. It’s just a playing field where the rules are up to the hopefully benevolent dictator, and all the players are at the mercy of that dictator’s market analysis and app store rankings.

For a time now, a common meme among web development professionals is that the web is the most hostile development environment in the history of computing, all because of the various takes on “standards” by the array of browsers on the market, the seemingly endless niche scenarios exposed by the seemingly endless tool choices, and the exposure to the population at large with only rudimentary access controls made available by the web platform itself.  But for all its flaws, the web has never been hostile in the way that iOS is today.  With the declarations Apple just made, the iOS platform (and really any other proprietary OS) is hostile to innovation.  And that hostility will kill the ecosystem.

The iOS ecosystem wont turn into a pumpkin at midnight tonight. It will continue to thrive for some time, and the extrapolation of near-term data of iOS development and usage will make for easy arguments that the app era is only just beginning, but the signs of strain are easy to find.  There’s already a dedicated piece of lingo for the notion of having Apple take your software idea and ship it with their iOS out of the box: “Sherlocked.” It’s been around for a couple of years now.  And today there was a seemingly endless font of the “s-word” springing from the twitter accounts of various well known iOS developers who had, for a time, found a happy little niche market that made for a nice living until Apple came in and ate it.  The cracks are starting to develop. No doubt some of these highly capable iOS developers will just look to create another clever iOS app, but it’s just as possible that folks with such skills might choose to now apply themselves to an ecosystem not wholly owned and dictated by the monster that just ate them.

One admirable quality of many of the best iOS app developers is that they treat their work like a craft. They often seek to find elegant, beautiful, and innovative solutions to common problems.  Many of them are prolific writers on the problems they’re solving and the efforts to do so. And while the monetary payoff is a prime motivation for these people, it’s clear that the creativity and innovation involved in their work is what keeps them going.  That innovation has value to these developers too, and Apple’s been keen to let them go right on innovating until they see fit to take all that innovation and use it for themselves.  And all it cost Apple was 70% of the third-party apps’ purchase prices from the App store.  That’s a heck of a ROI on market research and development.

And when such people, with their clever ideas, come to an intersection with better tools for developing advanced applications on the web, that’s when those cracks in the app ecosystem are going to give way.  Ideas are malleable on the web in a way they can’t be on a proprietary OS. The ever popular “pivot” is something that can be executed at relatively small cost on the web versus the OS.  There’s no need to conform to an albeit beautiful but restrictive set of UI guidelines on the web. Nobody worries that one’s web app ever need meet some form of “approval” except whether or not users find value in it. And on the web, as long as you put in the work, your app will always be discovered by someone.

Oh. Yeah. Discoverablity - the gaping wide hole in the proprietary OS ecosystem’s polished armor.  Funny how everyone waited to hear if Apple was getting into televisions when they haven’t managed to solve their biggest problem yet - the ability for users to easily, intelligently, and at times serendipitously discover great apps on the ecosystem.  Apple has now reached 6 full iterations of their iOS platform and still have nothing better than a few small improvements over the years to its base App store.  And Google Play? By the company that provides the de facto standard in web-based search?  Yeah, forget it.

The gold-star standard for application discoverability was invented years ago by Tim Berners-Lee before apps were even really a consideration.  That standard is the web, and that standard will be the benefactor to generations of web-based applications that learn to harness that power. No proprietary OS ecosystem will ever match it because to do so would be to implement an internal, proprietary version of the web that would be too hard to get third party app creators to agree to implement.  And so discoverability will not only remain a weakness for app platforms, but a major competitive disadvantage.

Proprietary app ecosystems wont fade because developers explicitly leave them. The getting for so many app developers is so good - for now. But the ecosystem’s best developers are being chased away. The web app ecosystem will simply begin to thrive as the tools improve, the skills advance, and the opportunity to be discovered remains open. Eventually developers looking to build something will seek open spaces where their innovations may grow without need to agree to the indentured servitude of the digital age.

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