Apple & Third Party Developer Opportunities: The Third Way
April 01, 2005

In the past, Apple has flip-flopped between two positions:

1) We provide the APIs, you (the developers) write the applications.

We don’t want to tread on your toes by writing products that compete with you, so we will provide only trivial applications, and sometimes we’ll even suppress our own internally developed applications, because they are too good.

This is what did a lot of harm to technologies like AppleScript, and PowerTalk. Apple allegedly had a great Mail client for PowerTalk, and a great editor for AppleScript, but didn’t want to release them for fear of offending the competition.

2) We want this platform to kick ass, so we’ll write some kick-ass applications.

We don’t really care about treading on your toes, because frankly we are the only people who have the whole picture. We know the system inside out so our applications can really integrate with it, and each other, resulting in a really nice user experience.

We don’t want to stop you from developing, but you’d be better off not developing anything too good otherwise we’ll have to do our own version and give it away for free.

Position (2) seems to be the default with OS X, and in some ways it’s hard to knock it. Admittedly some people get hurt along the way (Watson? Konfabulator? Come to think of it, anything that Arlo Rose was ever involved in), but all’s fair in love & war, and to be honest, an out-of-the-box Mac running the stock applications is really quite a nice tight ship these days, so it’s hard to argue with it from a user’s point of view.

It occurred to me today that there is a third way! It’s something that Apple is already doing in many ways, but they should definitely be encouraged to do more of it, and perhaps it should be formalised in some level of the Apple echelons of power.

Basically it’s the WebKit approach. WebKit is the rendering code that Safari uses. What Apple did when they developed Safari was to factor out the actual rendering code, put it into a reusable Framework called WebKit (something that other developers can use), and then build Safari on top of it.

Apple still gets to make a nice tight application that is well integrated with the OS and with other applications, but they also make a large chunk of the “heavy lifting” code available to everyone else. So someone like Omni can come along with their competing browser, and recode it to use WebKit. Now Omni can concentrate on adding the features that make OmniWeb better/worse than Safari (depending on your point of view), whilst offloading all of the support headache of the web rendering code onto Apple.

This approach is great for lots of reasons.

It encourages Apple to push the envelope, because they are doing something that benefits all developers. This is good because there are an awful lot of talented engineers at Apple. They might be working on Fireware Hard Disc drivers in the daytime, but they might well also have a great idea for an improved email client. It’s probably a good thing if those ideas can be expressed within Apple.

It also allows Apple to provide well integrated out-of-the-box solutions for whatever they deem to be the core tasks that an average user wants to perform, which, let’s face it, benefits us all if it means that more people buy Macs.

It lowers the entry point for Application development, which gets more talent into the Mac development space. It’s now feasible for me to write a customised web browser with WebKit. I might not do something very polished without a lot of work, but it might allow me to show you my great idea for browsers, which someone else may then run with.

It also encourages (forces even?) developers to focus on the added value (sorry) that their application is bringing to the domain they are working in, and they’ve got more time to focus on that code. The result for the user should ideally be an application that raise the bar another level past Apple’s default one, rather than just doing the same thing in a different way.

As I’ve said, this has already happened with WebKit, and because of the modular way in which a lot of software is developed these days, it is happening in other areas of the operating system - I suspect as a result of code which Apple engineers develop first for their own benefit, then realise that they can generalise for public consumption.

I suggest, though, that Apple make this a policy at some level. Yes, we will develop a mail client, web client, address book, music player, etc, etc, but each time we do so, we will ensure that the core ‘engine’ is provided as a public framework or API which other OS X developers can use. This will be good for them, and great for us.

« More thoughts on code-as-a-database XCode: Am I Missing Something? »
Got a comment on this post? Let us know at @elegantchaoscom.