Join the iPad gold rush - but strictly on Apple's terms


WIRED:For many thinking of dabbling in creating software for the iPad, a little culture shock, courtesy of Apple, awaits, writes DANNY O'BRIEN

YOU WOULD think the dust would have settled from Steve Jobs’s iPad launch, but no. Even though it’s still more than a month before anyone can actually buy the tea-tray-sized thing, debate still rages about its significance and chance of success. Is the iPad an industry-changing pioneer? Or just four iPhones stuck together?

Yes, I know what you’re thinking – and on one level, I don’t care either. But Jobs’s showmanship affects me as much as any other geek: especially a geek in search of some extra cash.

Apple’s senior vice-president of iPhone software Scott Forstall referred to the dawning of the iPad as another “gold rush for developers”. That’s a nod to when Apple first opened the iPhone to third-party coders. The iPhone gold rush brought riches to the few who managed to upload their apps first, and tempted thousands of others to release, convert or create their software for the iPhone.

Less than two years later, the iPod Touch and iPhone have about 140,000 applications. Almost all of these are runnable on the iPad, but none of them will take advantage of the tablet’s larger screen. It’s almost certain that the first wave of iPad buyers will choose to blow even more of their disposable income on exclusively iPad software, promising another rich harvest for first to market.

It’s going to be a strange trip, however, for these pioneers of the Apple tablet. First, unlike the iPhone’s app store, developers eager to sell their applications on day one won’t have iPads themselves to experiment on.

And, of course, despite Apple’s marketing, it’s not guaranteed that the product will match the success of the iPhone. This is a rush where the territory is unknown, and the gold purely speculative.

For many thinking of dabbling in creating software for the iPad, there’s going to be a little culture shock, courtesy of the Apple corporation. When I went searching on the web to find out where coders were discussing iPad development, I quickly realised that, unlike the webwide chatter of most platform developers, iPad coders were carefully coralled into official (and closed) Apple forums.

To download the tools needed to create an iPad program, prospective coders have to pay Apple €70, and are sworn to secrecy via a non-disclosure agreement. If you blurt anything about the forthcoming system onto the wider web, you risk being thrown out of Apple’s products forever.

That’s a jarring clash with the usual free-wheeling complaining, boasting and comparing of notes that takes place among most coders online.

Independent though the creators of iPhone and iPad applications are from Apple, they are still curiously dependent on the company. Not just because they lose time and money if Apple makes a mistake in the marketing or delivery of the much-hyped iPad, but also because their very participation in these gold rushes depends on them keeping in Apple’s good books. A few hours after I’d scooted around looking for Apple’s developer community, I happened to upgrade one of the third-party apps on my iPod Touch (the phone-less version of the iPhone).

The program is called Stanza; it’s an e-book reader created by a company owned by Amazon.

The release notes describing why their application was being updated was disturbing: rather than adding a new feature, Stanza’s coders explained they were removing a feature at Apple’s request.

All of this reminds me of the days before the Web, before Java, before the rise of Linux, when being a coder required hundreds of dollars of investment in software and licences, and demanded that you carefully picked which platform you would put your money behind.

Choose not to develop for Bill Gates’s Windows, and your company could go bust overnight (as many MS-DOS software houses did).

Choose, as many did, to be loyal to Apple in the 90s, and you would have been rewarded by a declining market, and useless yet expensive development software. Those days, too, were presented as a gold rush, and some certainly became rich by guessing which giant computing company would triumph. But for most coders, it might have been more accurate to describe it as sharecropping.

You got to plough your little field, but the real beneficiaries were those who owned the land on which you built your application: Windows, or Apple, or Oracle, or whoever.

These days, coders have skirted around these problems: they write code that can run on any platform – Mac, Windows or Linux. Or better still, they write for the web or another platform free of the control of one company. They don’t have to make side-wagers on the future of Jobs’s dreams, or Microsoft’s. And they certainly don’t have to remove features from their software at the behest of another company.

My hunch is that the iPad is going to be a success. To take part in that success, just as thousands of other developers reaped the reward of the iPhone, is a great temptation. But after the decade or so of freedom that coders have enjoyed, I know many who will wait on the gold rush, and seek out somewhere that isn’t just the same old company town.