The time between the developer preview for iOS 4 and iOS 5 was the longest to date. Rather than a spring event like in previous years, Apple didn't reveal any details of iOS 5 until WWDC 2011 in June. Also, rather than a summer release, general availability was held off until October of that year. So what did Apple manage to achieve with those extra months? Several things that weren't made available to developers, including Siri and Notification Center widgets. iCloud, however, and the sync services that came with it, were big. As was Newsstand and its subscription services, at least potentially. In keeping with tradition, however, neither was without controversy.
Meanwhile, over 500,000 apps were available in the App Store and downloads had topped 18 billion. By January, 2012, over $4 billion had been paid out to developers. By March, App Store downloads hit 25 billion, and by June, the App Store was available in 155 countries.
Apple originally announced App Store subscriptions in 2008 as part of the iPhone OS 3 event, but they never took off. At a special event in February of 2011, Apple's Eddy Cue joined FOX's Rupert Murdoch to announce proper subscription support on the App Store, and the Daily, a new, all-iPad magazine to spearhead it.
At WWDC in June, Apple showed off Newsstand, a special kind of folder that housed all the magazine, newspaper, and other subscription, periodical apps. Again, developers had to update to support Newsstand and its subscription features, but once they did:
- The subscription app would download to Newsstand, not the general Home screen
- The subscription app would "wake up" once a day to refresh content, if anything new was available.
- The subscription app would show the latest cover or front page artwork, instead of the app artwork, to visually cue users to potentially new content.
Reaction to the Daily was so-so. Reaction to Apple wanting their traditional 30-percent cut of revenue from subscribers, but not allowing any surcharging in the App Store to make up the difference, was explosive. The late Steve Jobs framed his position for Apple:
The issue became conflated with digital goods being offered as in-app purchases in general, perhaps exemplified most by Amazon's Kindle App. The platform concerns that come with deviating from 30% in any way were summed up by Matt Drance, former Apple developer evangelist and current Apple Outsider:
John Gruber framed it as harming middle-men in an ecosystem where Apple wanted to subsume the roll of the middle-man, and put it into the console model context on Daring Fireball:
These issues remain, though largely below the surface today. iBooks, however, which involves similar issues of revenue split and most-favored nation pricing, is a different matter. At Amazon's behest the U.S. Justice Department has taken Apple to court and won in the early rounds. Apple has called into question the severity of the remedies sought by the DoJ and vowed to appeal.
The Daily, meanwhile, couldn't create a sustainable business, and many other periodicals simply exported iOS compatible, if not friendly, versions of their print magazines from the same workflow. It took an iOS developer, moving into publishing, to show what Newsstand and subscriptions on the App Store could really do. Marco Arment:
The Magazine feels like a digitally native publication, and is still running, successfully, today. It's an example of how frameworks provided by Apple can allow developers to enter into, and potentially disrupt old, less agile businesses.
iCloud sync or swim
iCloud rebooted Apple's troubled and tarnished MobileMe service, rebranding the personal information management portion, taking away iDisk but giving backup and restore. For developers, however, it provided key value and document sync - or, as Apple repeated over and over again, storage up on the cloud and push down to devices.
Rather than the typical model of a single truth store with the web as the canonical view of that truth, Apple made all devices peers, including the Mac, which was placed on the same level as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. And all copies, of all data, on all devices, were considered equal. Or, at least, the way in which iCloud handled updates and conflicts was kept completely hidden from the end user.
This proved to be both the best and worst of worlds for developers, because when it worked out, it allowed almost magical sync that required no new accounts or setup for users. When it din't work, however, it was black box that provided no mechanisms for troubleshooting.
In April of 2012, six months in, Federico Viticci surveyed developers and shared their opinions on MacStories:
While key value sync apparently worked well enough, it only worked for very small amounts of data. Document sync took longer to solidify, but Apple's use of it in products like iWork forced them to get it done. Core Data sync, introduced later, and barely used by Apple, has been extremely painful for developers, to the point where many, publicly, stopped using it. Daniel Pasco of Black Pixel:
Either way, iCloud has not yet lived up to its promise. It's not become ubiquitous. To this day, not all apps use it, and certainly not all games Angry Birds developer Rovio recently chose to roll their own sync. Part of the reason for that is lack of cross-platform support, which means developers who also have Android or Windows apps can't use it. Brent Simmons of NetNewsWire fame writing on Inessential:
The flip-side to that is developers who would, on their own, be unable to write web and sync services, but get them "for free" with iCloud. If they're happy to stay in Apple's ecosystem, then they and their users enjoy tremendous additional functionality at far less effort and cost.
More recently, at WWDC 2013, Apple apparently addressed concerns over iCloud sync in general, and Core Data sync in particular. We'll have to wait and see how, post-iOS 7, that manifests.
In the meantime, these types of services are absolutely the future so it behooves Apple to pour every resource at their disposal into nailing them.
And so the story of the App Store continued. Amazing functionality bringing with it enormous controversy. Empowerment without transparency. Opportunity, but not without risk and frustration. Was such life?
To be continued...
- App Store Year Zero: How unsweetened web apps and unsigned code drove the iPhone to an SDK
- App Store Year One: Shocking successes, game-changers, and unpredictable pain
- App Store Year Two: Pushy new app options, iPads, and the advent of freemium
- App Store Year Three: Mild-mannered multitasking, iAD, and getting Game Center
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.