Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Greatly Exaggerated

Several people today tweeted a link to this blog post from John Casasanta of Tap Tap Tap about the death of Mac software. It's an interesting, post, and I'm having trouble deciding if I agree with it or not. I don't want to agree, that's for sure, but there are many valid points made.

My gut reaction, though, from which the title of this post is derived, is to paraphrase Mark Twain by saying the rumors of the Mac Software industry's death have been greatly exaggerated.

One of the assertions in John's post is that iPhone developers don't want to go back and develop for the Mac because the iPhone SDK is "shiny" while Cocoa is "old and crufty". I can't speak for any iPhone developers but me, but I really would like to spend more time with Cocoa. In the nearly two years since I jumped on board the iPhone ship, a lot of really cool things have happened to Cocoa, many of which aren't available to us on the iPhone yet. Blocks, GCD, and OpenCL mean that there are huge opportunities for new Mac applications, and mature garbage collection and instance variable synthesis mean even shorter development times. Heck, there are huge opportunities just to compete with and replace existing consumer applications, never mind for writing new applications. Can you imagine a Photoshop competitor that fully leveraged these new technologies1? Larger companies like Adobe with huge Carbon-based codelines have quite a challenge ahead of them getting their older applications to be 64-bit clean and running on Cocoa, which is a requirement for leveraging much of the cool new stuff. The large corporate software powerhouses are floundering in terms of modernizing their mainstay apps. To say there's not an opportunity there seems wrong to me. It may not be as easy or convenient of an opportunity as represented by the App Store, but there's definitely opportunity.

The Mac's market share is also higher than it's been at any time in at least ten or fifteen years and it seems to be trending up. In terms of actual installed base size, there are more people using Macs than ever in history. Even among people who don't use or like the Mac, the realization that it's not a "toy" operating system is slowly dawning on even the most ignorant of Apple haters. Well, okay, maybe not the most ignorant, but certainly everyone else.

More people are using Mac, so it's hard to imagine how the Mac Software market can be dwindling. If it is, it's likely a failure to take advantage of the opportunities that do exist. Perhaps we're all blinded by the bright, shiny App Store. Maybe stuff's not selling because there's not enough being written or marketed. Maybe we're all still buying into the gold rush stories subconsciously.

There's no doubt that the App Store is a rousing success and that it makes it far easier to reach customers, but hardly every iPhone developer is making a great living at this. TapTapTap is one of the great success stories, and the view from that perspective is very different from the the perspective of developers I've talked to who haven't recouped even enough to have made minimum wage for their time investment in their application. More than one iPhone developer are are looking for greener pastures, though many are having trouble finding one.

I do agree with John on many of the points in his post, however. I agree that it would be great if Apple opened up the App Store to Mac applications, but also agree that it seems unlikely that Apple will do it because they wouldn't have the same level of control. I also sincerely hope that John and I are both wrong on that. I find it odd that I can go into iTunes and buy movies, music, iPhone apps, and even donate to the Red Cross, but I can't buy Mac apps there. I can't even buy Apple's own Mac apps there like iWork and iLife. Last year, I ordered the latest version of iWork, both a single license for my business and a five-license family pack for home. I was able to just buy a serial number for the individual license, but for the family pack, I had to have a box shipped across the country to me. There's something wrong with that picture. I should have been able to just go into iTMS, specify the licenses I needed, then have the software download to my machine automatically. By now, we should have just as seamless and smooth of a buying experience for Mac applications as we do for movies, music, television shows, and mobile apps.

Even without a Mac App Store, though, opportunity is there in the Mac software world. In some ways, the opportunities are better than they've ever been because the potential audience is larger than ever and many of the people who are qualified to create quality Cocoa apps are myopically focused on the iPhone right now. Yes, there's more work involved with Mac apps. You'll have to find a distribution path. You'll have to advertise. You'll have to arrange a payment mechanism. But there are so many targets begging for a good competitor right now, and so many new as-yet uncreated markets that can now exist because of the amount of processing power we can easily leverage in Cocoa. There are many big, slow, corporate-owned, Carbon-based crappy-ass apps that keep making money because they have tons of cash to advertise and because there isn't a viable alternative or, at least, people aren't aware that there is a viable alternative.

We all started on a level playing field in the iPhone nearly two years ago. In fact, it wasn't even level at the start; smaller companies and individuals had the advantage of agility. Hell, a large corporation like Adobe or EA can't decide to enter a new market in the time that some of the earliest iPhone applications were designed, developed, and shipped. Heck, a large corporation often can't even decide who should decide to enter a new market in the time that many iPhone apps were written. TapTapTap was smart enough and capable enough to take advantage of that opportunity, but people entering the iPhone market today have to compete with the big names and the established small names.

Even though the distribution situation is considerably better on the iPhone than on the Mac, the overall competitive landscape really isn't all that different when you look at the market as a whole. How many of the top-ten grossing games right now are titles from big-name companies? Usually, it seems to run between seven and ten of the top ten are big-name titles. On the other hand, what percentage of successful Mac titles are produced by independents? I have to believe it runs at least 10-30%, and I would guess it runs higher.

I don't see the markets as being nearly as different as John does for somebody starting from ground zero today. There are differences, certainly, but there's plenty of room for success — and failure — in both markets.

1- Actually, I can. A couple of years ago, I abandoned Photoshop for Acorn, which is a native Cocoa image editor that rocks. There are a few features that some design professionals might need that it doesn't have (e.g. CMYK support), but what it does, it does so much faster than Photoshop CS4 that it's not even a close race, and yet it costs a fraction of what Photoshop costs. And think about this: Acorn is mostly written by one person. Compare that with the names in Photoshop's dialog box.


Jesse said...

I agree with you very much.

There are very few people who could make an income at the level of Tap Tap Tap or more.

The iPhone platform is more attractive because it's simpler and it's easy to get started writing any type of app.

Phillip said...


Very good analysis and thank you for giving some light on mac development (as opposed to iphone development). Now, I know what I should do i.e. proceed in porting my windows app to the mac. Thanks again.

Stuart said...

Hey Jeff,

just an FYI that you can use blocks on the iPhone today via Landon Fuller's port of Apple's official blocks implementation for Snow Leopard. Landon has made it as easy as simply running a package installer and you are good to go. I am willing to bet that iPhone OS 4.0 will have block's support too :)

I have apps in the App Store that do take advantage of it, and it is just so productive for many scenarios.

I've also created a patch for cocos2d, and Riq is going to incorporate it into the 1.0 release.



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Neil said...

I like Acorn too.. and also use Pixelmator for a bit more heavy lifting..