Today is a good day to code

What if Apple’s Vision of a Modern Platform is Right?

Posted: February 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Apple, Cocoa, Companies, Google, iPhone, Microsoft, Objective-C, Programming | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

This past weekend, I was thinking more about the iPad.  One of the thoughts that kept coming back was about the iPhone / Cocoa Touch development ecosystem as a platform, and how that looks in comparison to existing platforms.  The conclusion that I came to was a bit disturbing to me as a developer concerning the future of application development in general.

It is somewhat useful to quickly recap the development environments of the past to contrast them to today.  First we need to talk about Microsoft and what a platform meant to them.  To Microsoft, the computer was a tool for technical users.  Even if their said goal was to put a computer on every desk, the engineers clearly have and had difficulty putting them into the place of their users.

As the computers’ abilities increased, so did their complexity, and the complexity of the OS.  Doing simple tasks like taking a piece of text from a word processing program and putting it into your spreadsheet program in DOS was mostly ridiculously complicated.  Windows made things a bit easier initially, but only for the most technical users.  Doing what should be mostly simple tasks were still difficult, DOS was still around and necessary to do many common tasks.  The thing booted from DOS which created no end of problems.  It just wasn’t an optimal solution for the mass of computer consumers out there.  This was evinced by a proliferation of “computer” classes which were supposed to take the burden of designing something that was easy off of the engineers who designed the system.  That it did, and they proceeded to make a system that was even more of a tangle.

For those who would say that the Macintosh is much easier, I take issue with the word “much.”  In reality Unix / Linux / Mac OS X.x is not terribly easy to use.  To someone who has a good understanding of the computer, and conventions it is much simpler and more straightforward to use and manage.  For a technical user Apple does a fantastic job of making most things that normal people want to do easy without preventing technical users from doing complicated things, but the underlying complexity is not without its cost to the typical end user.

Now, if you were designing a platform today, for millions of people worldwide, with different levels of technical ability, the issue of computer and operating system security looming large, and the ever increasing abilities developers have to make computers do insanely complex things in the blink of an eye, how would you develop it?  Would it be like Windows, putting the burden of learning, understanding, and protecting themselves on the user?  Would it be like Unix / Linux, putting the burden of everything on the user, but exposing incredible levels of customization to the user?

What you would do would depend on what your goal was, but if your goal was to provide the best possible user experience, you would likely ( I know that I would ) take it upon yourself to protect your users from viruses, phishing, hacking, malware, etc…  You would likely make it difficult or impossible for developers working on your platform to make choices that would negatively impact the usability of the platform.  You might choose a somewhat difficult language combination for development to make a barrier to entry for developers, to make sure that the developers that did create for your platform were of a caliber such that they could actually make compelling content for your devices.

You might establish a certification board of some sort to determine if the applications being developed for your platform met your requirements for ease of use, stability, and security.  You may come to the conclusion that the only way to enforce your vision of the platform and be the ultimate consumer advocate, you would have to make sure that every application went through this board before they were available on your platform.  Once available for your platform, you might make the installation and configuration experience as painless as possible for the user, even if it meant imposing further complexity of implementation on the developer.

Does any of this sound familiar.  When I went through, designing a platform as a consumer advocate, what I ended up with was pretty much like what Apple has for the iPhone / iPad / iPod Touch development environment.  With one exception, I was actually more stringent in that I wouldn’t allow wapletts ( web application applets ) on the platform.  I would require those developers to just build a web application customized for the experience.

The funniest thing, or strangest if you don’t like that colloquialism, was that designing the platform as a developer, it didn’t look anything like this, in fact, it looked much more like the development experience around Ubuntu linux.  Where I ended up is that perhaps as developers, we are heaping too much responsibility on the average user trying to use the platform.  I think that Apple has the right mix with the app store experience for the types of devices that are running the Cocoa Touch framework on Objective-C.

That being said.  I don’t like it.  However, I understand it, and the UX / UI Designer at my heart rejoices at the emergence of this paradigm, where the responsibility for security and workflow consistency are on the developer, not the user.  But the programmer in me rebels at having someone tell me how to design and implement what I want on my device.  Having someone lord over me as to what is an acceptable software application is irritating to say the least.  I think the UX designer, and consumer advocate in me wins, and there are platforms like Mac OS X that I can work on to satisfy the programmer urges in me.

I predict, however that Apple will do away with the use of the existing Mac OS X on the MacBook,the iMac, and the MacBook Air.  I think they will start running this Cocoa Touch OS with all of the restrictions and HIG guidelines as the iPhone.  I think that there will be an app store for these devices, and I think that it will be the only way to install software.  Seeing iWork on the iPad is the first example of the migration of Cocoa Touch to a full fledged computer operating system.

Apple will probably, keep the MacPro line and the MacBook Pro, perhaps adding an iMac Pro running Mac OS X.x in the way we have always come to expect it, and it will likely become even geekier than it already is.  The most floor slapping, hilarious thing is that Apple has come full-circle to an old Microsoft idea that was right on, however, big surprise, was improperly executed.

Originally Microsoft had its Windows Professional and Home lines, they had Windows 2000 for business and Windows 98 for home users.  The concept was that they wanted to have a much simpler OS for normal consumers and a much more complicated, and powerful, platform for businesses to use.  Apple has slightly turned this on its head, they, in my humble opinion, want to have a platform that is an awesome one for media consumers, and general consumers, and a platform for the programmer geeks that have made Apple what it is.  It is for that reason that I anticipate a iPad Pro soon after the launch of the iPad, perhaps even as soon as WWDC ’10.  The iPad Pro would likely run a Cocoa Touch OS that was less restricted, and more like Mac OS X.x.

Ultimately, I think Apple wants, and will make everyone happy, but we are at the beginning of this incredible consumer platform, and I think that for its stated goals, the App Store, the “awful policies,” et cetera, are the best possible way to get to it.  However, I think for its perception among geeks, Apple needs to communicate their strategy as soon as possible.  If they intend to make all of their devices like the iPod Touch, then we have a problem.  However, this is extremely unlikely.  I can’t wait until WWDC this year!