iPhone App Exchange: Where's the Open Source Love?

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Developers, what can you do if your iPhone app isn’t exactly the second coming of Farmville? If, frankly, it’s a dud? Not to worry: there’s an app for that. Or, rather, an App Exchange.

For those not-so-successful iPhone apps, the iPhone Application List, an iPhone app review site, launched its App Exchange on Monday. While Apple created the App Store to enable third-party software developers to line their wallets (and Apple’s) with cash, App Exchange provides a forum for app developers to offload the code for their apps in hopes that a little TLC might turn a dud into a stud.

There’s apparently no fee for listing; App developers just need to be able to provide their vitals: release date, number of downloads, and number of active users.

As the website suggests, “There are a lot of apps in [the] AppStore which came close to greatness and require just a touch up (pr, marketing, design) to become bestsellers.” Maybe, but I suspect there’s an anemic audience interested in buying and selling failed iPhone apps. Indeed, as I type this, there are a whopping two apps available for sale.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given the selection criteria. The site notes that “Apps that have been released more than a year ago and haven’t achieved significant sales/downloads results will not be listed in App Exchange gallery.” Presumably those that have achieved significant success wouldn’t be looking to dump their code in this sort of asset sale.

But there’s more to it than this. It’s likely that developers would be better served by an equally free (as in listing cost), but more open (as in open source), exchange for iPhone app code. Even better if that exchange were hosted by Apple, in the same way that Google operates Google Code.

Yes, there’s open-source code available for iPhone-related software on Sourceforge, a popular open-source code repository, or relative newcomer Github, with its own strong and growing following. But iPhone app developers are more likely to trust a repository affiliated with Apple more than a generic site, if Google’s experience with Google Code is a good indicator.

By 2008, two years after founding its code repository, Google Code claimed 80,000 projects, nearly half as many open-source projects as SourceForge at the time. Today, that number significantly exceeds 300,000 projects, as Google’s open source program manager Chris DiBona told me on Wednesday.

This puts Google Code equal to or larger than SourceForge’s size. The most recent data from SourceForge (from Feb. 2009) pegs it at 230,000 projects.

Does it matter? Not in the sense of delivering revenue to Google. These are, after all, open-source projects, given away for free, and most of them are not directly managed by Google.

But as Microsoft learned, developers matter a great deal. They matter because they provide a rich ecosystem of applications and infrastructure code, but also evangelism, forum activity, and more.

Apple may be more interested in developers that pay the company 30 percent on each iPhone app sold, but it should be just as interested in fostering open-source developer communities around the iPhone and iPad, communities which can help it to broaden adoption and improve the quality of applications available.

It would be easy to argue that Apple has done just fine without open source, but this would be naive, given the looming threat of the open-source Android platform (200,000 Android devices shipping every single day), as well as Apple’s own history with open source. While the company has a fat profit stream built on proprietary software, it also is an active adopter of and contributor to open source, as its own open source page shows.

Apple needs these developers now. On the desktop, it was relegated to decades of industry indifference due to its lack of third-party developer interest. The company has clearly learned its lesson, and has made developers the focal point of its iPhone and iPad strategies. It’s impossible, however, to speak to developers these days without a credible open source story.

Google has one. Apple still doesn’t. An Apple-sponsored App Exchange could help to fix that by connecting developers to others’ code on Apple’s chosen turf.

Would it impact Apple’s earnings? Not today, and probably not for some time. But cash isn’t the only valuable currency for developers, and so long as Google Android and other competitors offer more vibrant paid and unpaid developer ecosystems, Apple’s lead will always be under serious threat.

Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. In addition to Canonical, Matt is an advisor to or holds (minor) equity interests in the following companies: Alfresco, Jaspersoft, Jumpbox, LoopFuse, Lucid Imagination, MindTouch, Openbravo, rSmart, SugarCRM, and Volantis. Outside of mutual funds, he has no financial positions in any public companies he covers.

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