App developers learn to cope when Apple encroaches

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UPDATED: Jonathan George, CEO of Boxcar was on pins and needles as he tuned into the coverage of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, waiting to find out if Apple was about to squeeze his business or allow it to flourish. George, who founded the push-notification service, breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the announcement that Apple was introducing Notification Center for iOS, which organized all text messages, missed calls, calendar alerts and app alerts in one place. While the new offering may affect his messaging in-box feature, it will leave intact his core business of delivering messages, especially from companies that don’t have mobile apps.

“I was pretty concerned before the announcement because you don’t know what Apple is going to do, but it turned out great,” said George. “We can all send a lot more notifications now so this helps everyone.”

Not everyone was so lucky. Marco Arment, founder of Instapaper, responded with a short but concise tweet of “s***” when Apple announced the new Read Later feature for iOS. He later recovered and said, “Glad I’ve invested in social and editorial features. Not dead yet!” Later in a blog post, Arment said Apple’s foray into time-shifted reading will likely be good for Instapaper because it will shine a light on this sort of application, which is unknown to most users. And that could help encourage people to eventually pay up for Instapaper’s premium services, he said.

“So I’m tentatively optimistic. Our world changes quickly, especially on the cutting edge, and I really don’t know what’s going to happen. (Nobody does.) But the more potential scenarios I consider, the more likely it seems that Safari’s Reading List is either going to have no noticeable effect on Instapaper, or it will improve sales dramatically. Time will tell,” Arment wrote.

The reaction shows how developers are often at the mercy of platform makers, who create vibrant ecosystems but can also wade into the market with their own native features and apps that compete with, and can sometimes, displace existing third-party apps. It’s a lesson some Twitter developers are learning the hard way lately. Apple’s latest mobile operating system and iCloud roll out touched on a lot of existing third-party services from cloud storage and note-taking apps to reading programs, camera apps and group messaging services.

But in talking to developers, many came away upbeat about the latest announcement. John Casasanta, principal at tap tap tap, maker of the photo shooting and editing Camera+  app, said he was not worried about Apple’s improvements to its native camera and photos apps, which will soon offer the ability to get access to the camera from the lock screen and the ability to shoot pictures with a press of the volume button, something Camera+ popularized before the feature was banned. The new iOS tools also include simple rotating, cropping and red-eye removal. Casasanta said the new features shouldn’t eat into Camera+’s 3 million users and may serve to feed the appetite for more robust apps like Camera+. He said he’s excited to hear what kind of lower-level API access Apple grants third-party developers, which could mean better apps for everyone.

“The bottom line is it will make things much better for camera apps in general,” Casasanta said of Apple’s release of 1,500 APIs for iOS. “The third-party camera apps market is huge. People love them and we’ll probably see more camera apps now.”

For Jared Hecht, founder of messaging app GroupMe, the announcement reminded him that it was good to invest in cross-platform apps and multiple technologies. While on Monday, Apple introduced iMessage, which allows users to send text messages, photos, videos or contact information to a person or a group, it is confined to iOS products and works over a data connections, not SMS. GroupMe, on the other hand, works on Android and BlackBerry as well, and uses SMS when a data connection is weak.

“What Apple did is good for the iOS ecosystem, but what we’re doing is fundamentally different. What we’re doing is being accessible for all people whatever phone they have,” said Hecht.

George said the reality is that Apple always has the right to encroach on the turf of developers. But it often leaves an opening for good developers who are willing to go deeper or more broad with their services. It doesn’t mean developers are always safe, but it’s not all doom and gloom with new iOS releases that have competing features.

“None of these affected apps will go away, because they offer deeper functionality. But (the new iOS 5) introduces the masses to those kinds of applications,” George said. “There is always a segment that wants deeper functionality and that’s something Apple just doesn’t do. Apple has done a good job of creating more opportunities than they destroy with their new releases. But you have to remember you’re playing in Apple’s ball game.”

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