There are lots of different ways to measure how friendly a company is toward developers, and whether a tech company complies with the values that its developer community cares about. I’m a big believer in what I earlier called “radical institutional empathy”. What this entails is not being an apologist for any one company or institution, but rather trying to understand its decisions within the context of what the people who work there must be trying to do.
The problem is, it’s hard to do that in the current world of tech writing; people want to bring their own biases (things like whether a company is “good” or “bad”, or whether a particular technology or strategy is “open”) rather than applying a fairly consistent set of evaluations to all the players in a space.
One useful recent example is the conversations about Twitter’s APIs. When I wrote What Twitter’s API Announcement Could Have Said, people both mistook it to be my personal feelings about what the company could have said, or my literal interpretation of what Twitter was trying to describe. It was neither. Instead, it was an attempt to show a developer community that’s largely abandoned any attempt at logically understanding a platform’s changes and is now fully in the throes of emotional responses to anything that happens. Now, I understand that Twitter’s own communications have been part of the reason there’s been that breakdown, but all big companies are bad at communicating. That’s just a fact. So we have to have a more reasonable way of reading the tea leaves.
Let’s try applying a reasonably consistent set of commonly-held developer values to the flagship platforms of two of the tech world’s favorite companies, Apple and Twitter. Obviously, the companies are wildly different in the audiences they serve and in what they provide to developers, but this is a useful comparison precisely because the loudest developer voices on both platforms comprise many of the same people.
|Has introduced the Innovator's Patent Agreement, an extensive new effort ensuring its software patents will only be used defensively, which makes developers optimistic.
|Has a history of aggressively pursuing patent protections, which even when justified open the door to ever-more-expansive interpretations of software patents, leading even sympathetic developers to worry.
|The company fought tooth-and-nail to avoid giving over a user's private information, defending the case against the government to the maximum of their legal abilities.
|The company refused to allow news to be published on its platform because it was "not useful".
Roadmap for Third Parties
|Published an obtusely-worded but generally reasonable set of guidelines for third-party developers on its platform, without explaining how those guidelines align with its business model. There is no documented process of appeal for apps which are cut off.
|Publishes a concisely worded and clear set of extremely restrictive guidelines which are subject to change regularly. Has a well-documented process of appeal for apps which are cut off.
Competing with Developers
|Told third-party developers to focus on analytics and value-add instead of read/write clients two years ago; Reiterated this recently. Hasn't shipped any apps that compete in other categories, but is tightening restrictions on apps in the read/write category.
|Provides no guidance beyond the platform terms as to which areas apps should avoid, but has expanded to digital wallet, voice search, podcasting, video chat, reminders, reading, game networking, and other apps in competition with third-parties that had released earlier apps on the platform.
Turning the Table
I understand that these comparisons are necessarily imperfect, and selective in their focus. Apple is very different from Twitter in that it plays the role of a payment middleman. (I find the defense that Apple allows ways around its platform shortcomings through use of the web to be spurious; If we grant it for Apple, then we’d have to grant it for Twitter. The web doesn’t have these weaknesses.)
My point here is not to defend Twitter or Apple, though partisans of either company will undoubtedly say I’m being unfair to their favored platform. But rather, we should look fairly at their stances on important issues like free speech, intellectual property rights, self-expression of users and stability of developer opportunity when evaluating them.
Given that the most prominent pundits who’ve opined on the merits or weaknesses of these platforms often develop for both, I’d be curious to see how they interpret these facts about the company’s positions in the context of how the companies see themselves and their goals.
We can rightly be frustrated at Twitter having targeted some apps in its upper-right quadrant; Rather than simply waving off client developers, Twitter could have said “it’ll get increasingly expensive and difficult to compete in that market” and it would have had the same chilling effect without being punitive. But if we are frustrated at that, then certainly we should consider that the majority of popular iOS applications which aren’t games are in Apple’s virtual upper-right quadrant. Maybe that’s fine. If so, then it should be fine on any platform.
And if we think changing the rules of the game as developers are playing it is unfair, then clearly neither of these companies, nor any major platform company, can be considered to be fair. As I make the decisions for how my own company will invest in these various platforms, I feel reassured again and again that the open web is the safest long-term bet for retaining control over my own destiny.