Mobile Tech

Will the iPad Thrive in Apple’s Closed Ecosystem?

IUGO Mobile has used Apple’s iPhone to dial up a measure of success with its smartphone-based games. The development company, which makes popular titles “Zombie Attack!” “Toy Bot Diaries” and “Implode,” was the first gaming outlet to get its own featured section on the iTunes for PC Store. IUGO’s games are used for demo purposes in Apple Stores, and “Toy Bot Diaries” was part of the montage of games used in the first iPod touch gaming-centric TV commercial.

When the ad came out, however, it wasn’t Apple that let IUGO Director of Business Development Sarah Thomson know that the game would soon be seen on TVs across North America.

“One of our friends who lives in San Francisco saw the commercial,” Thomson told TechNewsWorld. “They called and said ‘Congratulations.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ They said, ‘We saw your company in the TV commercial.'”

When IUGO games get approved for the App Store, “most of the time we don’t even get calls,” Thomson said. “We find out from perusing the App Store. We’re in their inner circle, and we still don’t get told.”

Such is the case when you write programs and applications for anything related to Apple, one of the most successful consumer electronics companies to use a closed, proprietary system linking hardware and software. Even though that system is so locked-in that it might try the investigatory abilities of a Mike Wallace — much less a Jason Bourne — it hasn’t had an impact on groundbreaking sales of iPods and iPhones, and isn’t expected to significantly impact the new iPad, which debuts in the U.S. this Saturday.

Meanwhile, Google is celebrating the techno-democracy that an open source system like Android can bring to handsets — and a Chrome OS-based tablet is supposedly in the R&D pipeline. So how long can Apple keep telling developers — and consumers — to do it their way, or hit the digital highway?

Lessons Learned From Techno-History

Looming over Apple’s shoulders: the ghost of America Online from the early 1990s. AOL got big enough to eventually buy Time Warner by promising that it could help consumers with brand-new IBM PS2 computers navigate this strange new thing called the “Internet” — just as long as you went through its portal and paid its subscriber fees.

“That was just painful,” recalled Chris Hazelton, director of research for the 451 Group. “AOL kind of tried to hide the Web from you.”

However, Apple is working on a different level, he told TechNewsWorld.

“I think if anybody can do this, Apple can. Each aspect of that closed system it provides is pretty good. Sometimes when you have a closed system and there are weak points within it, there’s a real potential for that system to fall apart. But the iPhone is a very good device, and it has a large collection of music and media for it, so that pairing works very well,” Hazelton maintained.

“If the iPad is a very good device, you’ll still have that kind of freedom. You’re choosing applications that are within Apple’s base of developers, and it’s a very large market,” Hazelton continued.

There is potential for problems with the e-book content aspects of the device, he acknowledged. If the book-reading experience doesn’t exceed or at least match was is currently offered in Amazon’s Kindle, “then maybe you’ll have a cry for more openness.”

Then again, the argument over open or closed systems is largely confined to those who love to argue all things Apple — bloggers and the tech media — and won’t likely be brought up when mall shoppers hit their nearest Apple Store to ask questions about the iPad.

“Consumers don’t buy open or closed. They buy products and services,” Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe said. “I think the average consumer doesn’t really think much about whether the ecosystem is open or closed. They mainly say, ‘does this do something I want to do?'”

The iPad will launch with more apps ready for use on it than any other platform in recent technology history, Howe said. The likelihood you’re going to run into something you won’t be able to do on it — notwithstanding its lack of Flash support — is small.

“People often forget that when Windows came out, Microsoft got a huge pass at first on the fact that they completely owned the opening screen, the boot screen, the installation screen, and you had no option to change that. And Microsoft did just fine,” Howe told TechNewsWorld. “The restrictions have to be pretty blatant, particularly if it’s an attractive device.”

The Developers’ POV

IUGO’s development team was very attracted to the iPhone, and is now enthusiastic about the iPad.

“The overall response was very positive. We saw the opportunity in a couple of different ways,” Thomson said. “As game developers, we’re always excited when a new device comes along that makes us push the limits in gaming, particularly mobile gaming. The iPhone really changed mobile gaming and legitimized it, and the iPad will take it a step further. It has unique features, a larger screen, it will do things in a more robust way and is very graphically expressive. There’s the multitouch interface and the ability to have more than one person on one device — that’s really cool.”

Having said that, Thomson admits that Apple’s closed system and demanding developer requirements can be frustrating. Despite being one of the few independent gaming development companies that have acquired a special account status with Apple — “they come and seek you out for that, they pick you” — they are forced to deal with the whims of a company that doesn’t always let developers in on the decision-making process.

“It’s very little information. It’s very controlled. We’ve had games that have been rejected — and for months and months, we got no feedback,” said Thomson.

Yet the Android OS, despite the promise of more developer freedom, is hobbled by early missteps that have resulted in fragmentation, she noted, and that needs to be addressed by Google if the Android Marketplace is truly able to compete.

IUGO would like to see more discipline and a centralized payment system, said Thomson. In the meantime, it views writing apps for Apple, the iPhone and iPad as more of a marketing opportunity than a way to make a lot of money in a short period of time — although the company would settle for that kind of financial success as well.

“There are all sorts of opinions over whether the iPad will be successful, becuase it fits into this weird niche,” Thomson observed. “We feel optimistic about it. It’s the perfect living room device. I see the average American or Canadian sitting down and lounging on the couch, playing games, surfing email, what have you. The argument is, what about netbooks? Laptops? The difference is that Apple nails the user experience. They totally get it.”

2 Comments

  • I’m wondering who will ever be able to make a device that satisfies the open source enthusiasts. They seem to want a device which is all things to all people and uses every possible kind of software. Where shall we find this mythical beast?

    Most of the technologies we use are fairly closed systems – it’s what makes them work predictably and reliably. If I buy a Ford I don’t expect to be able to put a Toyota engine in it.

    Apple make things that work a certain way. If that suits you, all is well. If not, just buy something else that does.

  • For some reason, people think Apple products are closed but they are a national park, fenced so what’s inside can be made easier for the average person to enjoy but short of starting a forest fire or hunting bears, you are free to hitchhike in with just a bedroll or drive in in a 80′ RV and do as you please. AS YOU point out in the article, only Apple would allow you to continue to use the Kindle app, the Stanza app or 10 other book reading apps – how is that closed? Yes, you cannot randomly install apps from anywhere but I think 99% of the average user would consider that a good thing just like i woudl like a forest ranger in the park versus no police element. The bottom line is what are you really missing out that you need a jailbroken phone? Most people prefer things like toilets and roads in their national parks – I’m sure 1% prefer the complete wilderness but then you have a choice, right? Just like people complained when the itunes store had DRM – you would use an an ipod with ZERo tracks from the itunes store – the only requirement was you had to use itunes to sync which was FREE and updated 6-9 times a year … how exactly is that a tragedy? How exactly is the Google OS "free" of constraints? Not only do DIFFERENT telcos use a different OS but you are locked to their store and that OS version. Plus with only 500 MB for apps, isn’t that less control than being to load up to 32 GB of apps?

    Comparing AOL to the internet to the Apple OS itself is a ludicrous comparison – that’s like comparing public transit to a private car – if you don’t think we can tell the obvious, maybe you can’t? Yes, the iphone is not a hobbyist kit car phone like the Google phones but most people would consider that a good because like a car, I start it and THEN THE REST OF THE JOURNEY IS MINE like the Apple iPhone.

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