Facebook: Please Back Developers vs iPhone

In July of last year, I wrote about The New Apple Walled Garden. The post was about the irony of developers and advocates who were otherwise open standards and open source champions being absolutely pro-iPhone, a platform that is closed and proprietary in every sense. Since that post, the horror that was foreshadowed by some has been realized – rejected apps, rejected apps, rejected apps. We documented the troubles here at Techcrunch and the overall response was nothing more than long comment threads, complaints, and a few wise people changing their minds. The complaints to date are from some bloggers and a small number of application developers, incidents that Apple are able to write-off as being minor, as they have a dedicated fan base and growing market share to fall back on. That was, until yesterday.

Yesterday, a high-profile iPhone developer became fed up with the nature of the platform and decided it was time to call it quits. Joe Hewitt of Facebook not only pronounced that it was time for him to move onto ‘other projects’, but had the courage to state that his reason was because of the closed nature of the iPhone platform and his frustration with the approval process. Joe is not just the guy who wrote the Facebook application, within 12 hours of the first iPhone launching he released a library for app developers to create iPhone-like applications. This was back in the first generation, when iPhone ‘applications’ were nothing more than websites. Without any documentation from Apple, and with sheer enthusiasm for the new-born platform, Joe created a library for other developers that would help them build applications that would mimic native iPhone applications built by Apple.

As somebody who downloaded the very early releases of Joe’s library, I could immediately see that most, if not all, of the first iPhone applications were built on, or at least inspired by, the iUI library he released. The credibility that Joe has and the work that he did not only inspired developers, but it gave them an easy path to developing the first generation of software for the iPhone. With the statements that Joe made yesterday, Apple has not only lost another developer that it can write-off, but has lost somebody who was an early adopter of their platform and an impetus for others.

Most iPhone and Apple fans would retort that “Apple make great products, and it is winning in a market where the consumer has free choice”. I agree that they make great products, I am writing this post on a Macbook. I was beside myself with excitement when I found out about Rhapsody, about OS X, about the new Mach kernel, about FreeBSD code being used for userland (my code is in there, somewhere). I was so enthusiastic about the second coming of Jobs that I had an email exchange with him about incorporating OpenSSL, amongst other things, when the early dev previews were out. I was totally sold, because an operating system was being built and released that combined the best of UNIX with the best of great interfaces. Finally, the open source on desktops conundrum had been solved, I cheered. The biggest non-Microsoft company had adopted what we knew was good, as a way to compete against the standard. It validated my belief in the BSD license, and I was completely spellbound and a fan (although not in the more recent fanboi sense).

It was not until the iPhone was released that I felt let down. I felt betrayed. I wanted to hack, and I wanted to do so standing on the shoulder of a giant who was gaining market, a giant who was my old friend. I hold a very strong belief in the open market, a concept which at a theoretical level is difficult to argue against. The iPhone took advantage of a market where the competition was completely clueless. It took an intelligent and smart outsider to recognize that. What has shaken my belief in the open market is that an otherwise good company can enter a market, show them how it is done – but do it in a bad way for the overall ecosystem, and at the same time win the support of people who would otherwise philosophically disagree with them, completely on the basis of that company being not-Microsoft and, well, being sexy.

I never believed that Microsoft were evil, first because as a user and developer I had a choice. Second, Microsoft gave me free tools to learn how to code. And last, despite the position Microsoft were in on the desktop they never asked me to send them my code so that they could test it against their black-box of what is ‘compliant’. Microsoft never sent me a letter to say that speech bubbles can not be used in my application. Microsoft platforms let me run whatever-the-hell voice provider I wanted. Microsoft, as far as I can recall, also never told me that I could not have a sense of humor (the ironic 1984 reference has already been done, thanks Jon). Developers today also have a choice with mobile applications, and the sooner more developers raise their blinkers and realize that the popularity of the iPhone is built on the applications they are building, the sooner we can either get rid of this mess and see Apple change, or see a new more open alternative thrive.

Hewitt’s statements, as a model iPhone developer from a large company, can be the tipping point. The only thing holding this back right now are Facebook themselves, who seem keen on preserving a business relationship and casting Hewitt off as a rogue. Facebook came out today, and in a more official capacity (ie. somebody with ‘communications’ in their title, as opposed to ‘developer’), said that “Facebook’s relationship with Apple and our commitment to the iPhone platform remain strong”, and that “There’s been a fair amount of confusion and speculation about Joe’s comments” (chuckle, chuckle) and that “Facebook has a great team of engineers taking over iPhone related development”. Joe is probably taking some heat from his employer right now, and he probably knew he would before he made any comment. Facebook could have simply shifted Joe to another project (Android, I hope), and many wouldn’t have noticed – but he stood up for what he believes in, and what many have been thinking, and he deserves the full support and credit from everybody who believes in transparency and free opinion, regardless of which side of the iPhone debate your opinions may reside.

If it comes down to Facebook vs iPhone, Facebook wins. If Apple hold to their position on being the gatekeeper for everything on their platform, we only win if the developers say no. An iPhone platform with applications only from Apple and no third-parties is no longer a viable platform, and no longer a device that consumers will purchase — because they are making decisions based on applications and access, not on the brand or suburb engraved on the back of it (I hope).

Facebook should recognize this and back Joe all the way. If they do, it will show that that interest of what they want to do takes precedence over what a handset manufacturer wants to do. Apple can squash small developers, but if a big developer were to set aside short-term business interest for a moment, they will win in the longer term. If only we could all do that and not be blinded, perhaps, well, the free market could work again.