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The Jesus Phone NDA - No one cares but you

'Get back to work, c**kbite'

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Fail and You Earlier this month, Apple lifted the heavy-handed nondisclosure agreement it imposes on developers. This NDA regulated what tips and tricks developers may share with each other (hint: none), which made it a real pain in the ass to publish a book about iPhone programming. Developers got really buttsore over this and did what developers do best: They blogged about it. Book publishers pissed and moaned, all the while under the impression that people still buy programming books. After this wave of anal pain circulated through the internet, Apple finally lifted the NDA.

Developers rejoiced and users continued not to care.

This neurotic control over everything having to do with the iPhone isn't surprising. It's actually a bit of a surprise that companies depending on the iPhone didn't factor this in as a business risk. Apple keeps a pair of steel vise grips held tightly on the application market's testes, they banish developers for re-implementing built-in functionality, and Steve Jobs's sparsely worded slide presentations make him seem like kind of a prick. From the outside, this seems like obsessive-compulsive behavior, but Apple is doing it because they can and because fuck you. Independent developers can whine all they want, but they face the harsh reality that users don't care about independent developers.

Bloggin' For Justice

If a programmer's absolute favorite thing to do is whine in a poorly written blog post, his second-favorite thing to do is threaten to take his business elsewhere. Google is boasting very liberal terms for developers in hopes of attracting iPhone refugees. While they may wrangle in a few, it's unlikely to make users care any more about Android. The iPhone and the Blackberry are still the dominant market players, with Google's flaccid attempt at a hardware device still unreleased. You can write all the neat-o little programs you want for the G1. It's still not going to threaten the iPhone.

Fortunately for the rest of us, a lot of developers have bosses who understand that business pragmatism is more important to survival than technological idealism. Let's look in on what happens when a programmer confronts his boss over Apple's strict NDA and other Jobsian policies:

Developer: Boss, I think we should scrap iPhone development for our new app and write it for Android. Apple is being really unfair about their terms, and they are ignoring the information-wants-to-be-free spirit.

Boss: How many units has Google sold?

Developer: Well, none, but...

Boss: Get back to work, cockbite.

For brevity, I will omit the developer's long winded, philosophical, and summarily ignored e-mail to the company's CEO. Moving to another platform because you don't like Apple's terms is a losing scenario for everyone, and even though a programmer who lives in open source fantasy land doesn't get this, the people responsible for paying that programmer's salary do.

While One Hand Rubs Your Back, The Other Steals Your Wallet

All whining aside, why did Apple scrap the NDA? Many suspect that it's because Apple sees Android as a threat, but I can tell you from personal experience that the big players in Silicon Valley are not nearly as organized as they appear from the outside. For example, recall that when Google Chrome first shipped, its license agreement gave Google rights to anything you created with the browser, butthurt blog posts included. Google shortly changed this, admitting that an overzealous copy-paste job was at fault. Did Google really want rights to your content, thinking they could sneak the terms into the EULA? No, some overworked, office-drone lawyer just fucked up. Nothing you read on the internet is nearly as much of a conspiracy as it's made out to be, and bureaucracy is way more powerful than competitive adaptation.

Others suspect that the NDA was lifted to keep larger development shops with the iPhone, but Apple has enough market share not to care about fleeing developers. If a company publishes a largely popular piece of software and is unhappy with Apple's terms, the probability of them running to another device is proportional to how much that other device can sell relative to the iPhone. In other words, it ain't gonna happen. If it did, another developer would be happy to fill the recently vacant iPhone market for that app, while users will continue to not buy the competing device. People don't spend hundreds on iPhones because of the apps, people spend hundreds on iPhones because they're so fucking cool.

No, I think that Apple's reason for scrapping the NDA would make Occam proud: It just didn't work. They wrote this agreement trying to protect their intellectual property, because I guess iPhone developers are privy to some of the inner workings of the device. This doesn't say much for Apple's software layer abstraction skills, but it's at least understandable. The strangulation of the book market and the developer information exchange were likely unintentional side effects of Apple protecting the iPhone's internals.

The agreement prevented developers from sharing tips and tricks with one another, so everyone turned to the backchannel. Like Apple understood with iTunes and its DRM, no amount of legalese can stop the flow of data in demand. Corollary to this, iTunes also taught them that few users will use the product solely because a single artist is on it, but many people will use the product if it provides a good general experience. One artist can bitch as much as he wants about iTunes's terms, but it won't do him any good. In the end, if you're dependent on Apple, you're at the mercy of Apple. They simply realized that controlling the backchannel was impossible, and the NDA did not and could not have its intended effect, so they scrapped it.

It's a small bone to throw the programming shops, and it will likely shut them up for a while. Apple is still judge, jury, and executioner for the App Store, so letting developers feel like they got their way will keep them complacent for the time being. Meanwhile, you can feel free to share your tips on building a Podcast program for the iPhone freely. Good luck getting it installed, though. ®

Ted Dziuba is a co-founder at Milo.com You can read his regular Reg column, Fail and You, every other Monday.

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