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Facebook for the iPhone is one of my most used applications, and I’m not alone as it’s amongst the most popular iPhone applications ever. This success is due to the size of Facebook itself, that the application is free, and that it is very well done. That last is due mainly to Joe Hewitt, who has been the main developer for Facebook’s iPhone application. Unfortunately that’s about to change, as Hewitt tweeted that he is moving “…onto a new project.”
At face value this may not be of any importance beyond a certain sadness to see a great developer leave a platform and an application so many love. In a conversation with TechCrunch, however, Hewitt made clear that the principal reason behind his departure from this project is his unhappiness with Apple’s management of the iPhone app store. Hewitt specifically mentions his philosophical opposition to the review process, indicating that it puts an unnecessary middleman between developers and users. He also fears that it sets a dangerous precedent for other platforms. Hewitt will be moving onto a web project at Facebook, which offers the opportunity to work on an open platform.
Hewitt is not the first developer to abandon the iPhone due to Apple’s perceived mismanagement of the app store, but he may be the highest profile. His departure from iPhone development highlights a critical danger that Apple faces with the app store. For a variety of reasons, ranging from an inability to get your application noticed, the danger of having your application rejected for unforeseen reasons and the very low prices charged on the app store, many developers are growing disillusioned with the iPhone as a platform.
If this trend reaches a critical level it could deal a blow to the iPhone, which has touted the wide variety of high quality applications in its marketing. Even more dangerous is the possibility that developers will move in large numbers to other platforms, with Android being the most likely option. Of course Android has its own problems related to app development, and there are still plenty of developers who are focusing on the iPhone as their principal mobile platform.
It may be, however, that Apple is offering its competitors an opening to create a much more developer-friendly environment and steal one of its key advantages: the quality, not the quantity, of applications available. If Android, BlackBerry or Symbian can attract top developers to produce 1,000 high quality applications for its platform, that will probably be enough to erase the huge lead Apple has today. Who cares if you can’t choose between 500 tip calculators, or 30 different versions of the same public domain book as long as you can get high quality versions of the apps you actually want?
It’s clear that Apple realizes there are problems with the way it is currently managing the app store. The question is whether it can make the necessary adjustments to attract and keep the best developers for the iPhone, or if the Joe Hewitt’s of the world decide it’s just not worth their time.