An item in the NY Times’ Bits blog today details the capricious state of the rules that may or may not affect iPhone application developers. The post focuses, in particular, on the fate of a software that allows you to download podcasts and stream them over a Wi-Fi or cellular connection. Apple decided not to sell the software in the App Store, telling the developer that iTunes already offered that functionality. The post argues that iTunes does not, in fact, offer it. But it’s more concerned with Apple’s approach to the iPhone as a platform.
What matters here is a set of clearly stated rules. If Apple wants to be a platform (and these days, everyone wants to be a platform) then it needs to play the same way with everyone all the time — and it needs to tell people the rules governing that play. When Facebook earlier this summer started shifting the rules governing applications that shut some programs down for a few days, it caused some investors in Facebook applications to grouse that the social network wasn’t acting like a platform.
They’re right. If startups are to build out wealth on a social networking platform, a mobile phone platform or a cloud computing platform, the platform providers need to have a set of rules, as well as a process to change the rules, that lets the affected parties have some say. In Facebook’s case, the changes were made to protect the user experience, but it’s good business to set policies in place ahead of time to prevent some of those problems (the cynic in me says that, if Facebook had done that, it would have sacrificed some of its growth).
The flip side of this is for application developers to realize that unless a platform has set rules in place, then they’re building their products not on firm ground, but on quicksand. So build for the iPhone or for other so-called platforms, but keep in mind that without a clear set of rules, they may not be stable.