A Golden Age for Indie Developers

12 Mar 08

Apple’s new iPhone SDK will change the cell phone game. It’s hard not to draw parallels to the introduction of the Apple II and the Mac—we’re seeing the birth of a new mass-market platform, potentially even larger than the desktop software market.

The early days of the PC were a great time for independent software developers. Software wasn’t bloated, and it was feasible for one individual to release an app critical to the platform. Times have changed. Solving interesting desktop software problems routinely requires large development teams, and widely distributing independent for-profit desktop software can be tough to impossible…

The Web solves the distribution problem, to a degree. Software distribution is now free, but attracting attention remains difficult. Customers have to stumble across your website, and there’s no uniform way of finding your app amongst a sea of competitors.

Two recent platforms are changing the landscape of software development. The first is Facebook. Facebook solves both the distribution and the marketing problem by allowing applications to spread virally through the news feed, profile boxes, and notifications. And the system is policed well enough to create a true meritocracy—the interesting, sticky, and well-produced applications spread rapidly while spammy and useless applications falter.

Facebook applications must be simple enough for potential installees to quickly “get” what the application is about, so the simple apps often find the most success. This makes Facebook a dream-come-true for independent software developers. An indie developer can bang out an application over a weekend and have a million users within a week. And thanks to caching provided by Facebook, complementary servers from Joyent, and even generous venture funding, the economic hit to trying your hand at Facebook development is effectively zero.

The new iPhone SDK is the newest game-changer on the block for independent developers. Powerful APIs do much of the difficult work for you, leaving you to focus on the core functionality of your app. And since this is mobile, that core functionality must be tightly focused and simple. We’ll see many more single-serving apps that bloated all-encompassing software suites—that’s a great thing for indie developers.

The iPhone SDK solves the distribution problem as well, but not as well as Facebook Platform. An application directory is great, but directories can’t distribute apps as efficiently as socially-enabled distribution allows. If, for instance, Apple recommended applications based on apps your contacts use, rapid person-to-person distribution of apps would accelerate distribution for great applications.

Yet Apple’s decision to handle billing and credit card processing solves the biggest problem of them all—how do I make money on this? Billing is the last big barrier indie developers face, and is often the one that scares us away. Apple is putting everyone on a level playing field by controlling the billing process. There are no excuses left for not writing that killer app you’ve had in mind.

I couldn’t be more excited about the iPhone SDK. I’m learning Objective C for the sole purpose of building iPhone apps, and I encourage any designer/developer to do the same. This will be the next software gold rush. The iPhone SDK, along with Facebook Platform will usher in a golden age for indie developers.

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