May 10

Bowing to User Experience

As a consumer of geeky news it is hard to check my Google Reader without running into two or three posts about Apple’s iPad and in particular the changes to the developer guidelines which seemingly restrict developers to using Apple’s Xcode tool and Objective-C language for iPad apps.

One of the alternatives to Objective-C affected, is MonoTouch, an option with some appeal to me as it is based on the Mono implementation of C#. Seemingly restricted is the key word here, as far as I can tell, no official announcement has been made about its fate. For more details around MonoTouch for iPhone OS, check out Miguel de Icaza’s post:

These restrictions have provoked some outrage as the perception is that Apple is arrogantly restricting developer’s freedom to create applications as they choose and perhaps unwittingly shortchanging iPhone/iPad users who won’t benefit from these now never-to-be-made great applications.

Apple’s response has mostly been to say they are concentrating on providing a certain user experience to their customers, and to do this, they insist everyone uses the tools they approve. Which isn’t a surprising line of reasoning given Apple restricts the hardware used and content of the apps already. The vogue term for this approach is curated, as in a benevolent museum director selecting only the finest artifacts for display or a wise gardener arranging the plants in a garden just so.

If this is what a curated experience is like it is hard to argue that consumers are not responding. My iPhone is probably the most satisfying piece of technology I own. Coming from the Razr, it really was an revolution in how the form factor, interface and user experience all tied together.

While the curated approach reinvented the smart phone genre, it is easy to forget that this is not a new approach for Apple. Macbooks and Macs are Apple hardware that run Apple software. And they’ve been successful,but not quite in the same way as the iPhone or iPad (based on early indications).

Why not? Well a curated approach can only be wildly successful if the curator a,) makes the right choices and b) offers choices that no one else has. Although its advantages are eroding, the iPhone was different from other phones, a unique, focused, touch-centric experience. The iPad is an attempt to define another category of computing. Macs and Macbooks are great devices, but are not fundamentally a different user experience than a PC, you still have windows, file folders, mouse and keyboard, and similar applications.

So the big question for Apple is can they hold on to their market advantage, continuing innovating in user experience and stay on top? Or are they going be like Xerox, and the rest of the world says thank you for the windows metaphor, now let me implement that better? It will be exciting to watch, with Android already a viable competitor and Microsoft readying Windows Phone 7.

And to close the loop back to the restrictions on developing for iPhone OS. At this point the main target appears to be Adobe and Adobe Flash. Apple’s calculation is that a) they don’t need those developers or b) the developers they want will learn Apple’s stuff anyway. My guess is that they are correct; that as much as I like the idea of developers having more options, I am not going to buy a competitor’s product to spite Apple unless that product is just as usable. For a non-technical consumer, I don’t know that this conversation even factors into the buying decision. If it did, we’d be talking about how Microsoft is trying to retake a slice of market share from the behemoth that is Linux.

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