Matt Gemmell

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Closed for Business

development & business 8 min read

I read earlier this week about a developer who made their Android version free after the $1 game was extensively pirated. Stories like this come as no surprise, but the industry press rarely deals with the core problem - and nor does Google.

I know a guy here in Edinburgh (a friend of a friend). He’s a nice guy. Runs his own business just as I do, and he’s a developer just as I am. We often end up chatting in the pub when we’re out in a large group. He has a bit of an “iOS is evil because it’s closed-source” thing going on, and likes to evangelise Android. It takes exactly one Jerry Maguire quote to chasten him (and bring a flush to his face) every time: show me the money.

People like to throw around figures about Android’s handset penetration. Yes, Android is on a lot of devices. That’s lovely. But the real question is: as a developer, can you make money from it?

If you’re not in the mobile apps business to make money, then great - congratulations. This is your bus stop. Off you go. Have a nice life. I, however, am in business to make money. I write code because I like doing that, but the business part is about making money. Otherwise I’d be a hobbyist, and I’d be doing something else during the day. I’m thrilled to be able to do something I enjoy as a business, and I’m doubly thrilled to do it from the comfort of my own home.

Whilst the aforementioned story about the Android game didn’t surprise me, it did horrify me. Android is designed to be difficult to make money from, and the core issue is that it’s open - with the corrosive mentality that surrounds such openness.

Designed for piracy

I previously wrote about the threshold of frustration at which piracy becomes easier than buying, but that’s not the case here. Buying an app on the Android Market is substantially similar to how you buys apps on iOS: you search, find the app, click Buy, confirm, and it downloads. It’s not an unduly onerous process, and certainly not a barrier to the business model. This isn’t piracy due to frustration.

It also wasn’t about price; the game was one dollar. Many iOS developers feel that the App Store is crippled with a race-to-the-bottom mentality, pricing apps far below a reasonable, sustainable value level. That’s absolutely true. Shame on you for pricing at $0.99 to chase the kind of customers who, well, think a dollar is anything but a trivial, throwaway amount of money that won’t even remotely get you a reasonable cup of coffee. Get some self-respect. Quit encouraging bad behaviour, and ruining the party for everyone else.

A price-tag of one dollar is passive smoking. You’re killing people around you, for your own short-term benefit. But again, that wasn’t the case here. It wasn’t piracy due to a high price. Instead, this was the endemic casual piracy of convenience.

If you don’t already know how to install pirated software on your Android device, here’s a tutorial on how to “sideload” Android apps (in practice, as with most articles that mention “backups” of software from nebulous sources, this is a tutorial about piracy).

Pretty easy. You search the internet for pirate copies of apps, then copy them onto your (regular, unrooted, non-“jailbroken”) device, and launch them. The system is designed for piracy from the ground up. The existence of piracy isn’t a surprise, but rather an inevitability.

A broken business model

Piracy isn’t a symptom of social disease. Well, it might be, but your bank manager won’t care about that inconsequential detail. Piracy is a symptom of failure to find an effective business model. “Effective” here means the whole gamut of product quality, availability, platform, marketing, price, delivery, support and so on. It’s not black magic. These are all factors for which we have strategies and metrics.

Piracy isn’t some unknowable thing that you can blame on teenagers in China and Russia. Those kids are practitioners of it, sure, but piracy is just a by-product of a broken model. The only relevant problem to fix is the root cause, and (conveniently) that’s the only one you can fix.

  • People pirate Android apps because it’s easy.
  • It’s easy because the platform was built with an open mentality.

You can say what you like about handset share, or first-party/carrier development: that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is community contributions to the OS codebase. On the first point, iOS devices are doing just fine. On the second, a closed OS has only strengthened the brand, cohesion of direction, integration, usability and design standard of the product.

The third factor is the software ecosystem. It’s about whether or not, when I pick up the handset and decide I want to do something, “there’s an app for that”.

To have apps, you need developers. To have developers, you need enthusiasm and an investment of time and talent. Enthusiasm and effort can be driven by many motivations, but the most reliable and consistent of those is money. Yes, there it is: the m-word. It’s not a dirty word. You wouldn’t have your shiny handset without it, not because you wouldn’t have been able to afford it, but because it wouldn’t exist.

There will be those who counter-argue that they got their handset for free, or indeed that they got their email service for free. No you didn’t. Nothing is free. It costs time at the least, which means that it always costs money (nobody’s time is free). More often, it costs you exposure to ads (and it costs the advertiser actual money). It may instead (or also) cost you something later, in the form of monthly fees, higher charges for data or SMS messages, or some other thing.

Somebody paid the piper, and it was usually you - even if you didn’t notice it happen.

People have to get paid. There has to be a revenue stream. You can’t reliably have that revenue stream if the platform itself and the damaged philosophy behind it actively sabotages commerce. If you want a platform to be commercially viable for third-party software developers, you have to lock it down. Just like in real life, closing the door and locking it helps make sure that your money remains yours.

Bad behaviour has to be more difficult than good behaviour - and good behaviour means paying for your software.

Freedom from choice

Words can be tarnished and given negative connotations, even if their core meaning is positive. There are people in this world for whom the word “liberal” is an insult, for example - and that’s a frightening thing. But one word I see constantly that always seems to be used positively is “choice”. I’m guessing it’s largely related to the service-oriented consumer culture that we inhabit, with the overarching obsequious and counterproductive “the customer is always right” principle embedded in its side like a festering splinter.

No-one stops to consider that “choice” is maybe a bad word. Consider that for a moment. What would you like Windows to do with this USB key? Just show me the damned files. Do you want to be warned when you view a web page with mixed secure and insecure content? No, go away. Do you want to pick the font for this text-editing field? No, just use a sensible default. Do you want a lot of after-market crap popping up on the desktop of your new PC? No, I want an experience I’m familiar with.

Nerds like to say that people care about choice at that level. Nerds are wrong. Nerds care about choice, and nerds are such a tiny minority of people that nobody else much cares what the hell they think. Android is designed with far too much nerd philosophy, and open is gravy to those people because it’s synonymous with customisation.

Customisation matters deeply to people who are deeply troubled by what they perceive as minor imperfections or inefficiencies. These same people, as a rule, have a stunning lack of ability to even imagine that others may not share their position. “Pick a sensible default, and skip the Options window” isn’t just anathema; it’s incomprehensible. They need choice.

The problem is, choice can be a terrible thing. People perceive choice as the poster-boy of our Western watch-word freedom. Try telling people that freedom is a bad thing, and watch the handguns suddenly appear from concealed shoulder-holsters. But freedom is bad, when you get too much of it. Just like sugar, or water, or air. Too little is unsustainable and quickly dangerous. Just enough is wonderful. Too much is the worst. It’s a slow death. A thousand cuts. Starvation. Asphyxiation.

Existence of some viable open source models doesn’t change the reality for the vast majority of developers. We don’t have a rich daddy like Mozilla. We don’t have an operating system for which we can use a paid-support model. We just want to make apps, then sell enough copies of them so that we can make some more.

The only principle that enters into it is that of survival: keeping food on the table, and making sure the lights stay on. Open doesn’t sit well with those goals.

Is contributing to open source projects (or creating and releasing your own) a good thing? Of course it is. It’s great for the community, it probably makes you feel good about yourself, and it can even bring you some actual business. I don’t even need to talk extensively about that, because I’ve done it for years, and continue to do so.

If you’re an open-source advocate taking objection to this article on the grounds that I’m somehow different from you, then I’m sorry to tell you that I’m not. I’ve walked the walk. If you’re using an iOS device or a Mac, chances are that some of my code is running on it. You’re genuinely welcome.

But that doesn’t scale to a platform, and it sure as hell doesn’t scale to the third-party developers who are supporting that platform by releasing software for it, thus adding value to the hardware and OS. Open doesn’t work. Open is a route to fragmented user experiences, handset-maker “value-adds” that are actually the old PC preinstalled crapware problem all over again, and customers who can’t get a software update for a year-old device.

Open is broken as a money-making platform model, unless you’re making the OS or the handsets. Most of us aren’t doing that. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that Google, of course, doesn’t give a damn about “open” per se; it’s just a route to get their ads into your eyeballs, and your info into their datacenters. Which is entirely fine as a business goal for Google; just don’t pretend they actually believe in open. Nor should you.

Lock it down

Open might make you feel good. It might make it seem like tomorrow is that little bit more certain, but you’re making a hell of a lot of convenient assumptions - many of which are at odds with the reality of this industry. We trade up our hardware. Apps thrive, decline and are replaced. Companies sell up and move on. Stallman’s printer-driver doesn’t get updated by the neck-beard community years later in a triumph of GPL principle, because everyone has replaced their printer with a better model anyway.

Open is an ideal, like true democracy, that’s warm and comforting but also impossible in a practical sense. It’s self-limiting. You’re spending today to pay for tomorrow, and we all know how that usually turns out. I want the futuristic, liberal, socialised utopia as much as you do, but I acknowledge that what we actually get is the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Capitalism wins, and it’ll drown you in the process if you stand in the way.

The sooner you realise that reality and come to peace with it, the happier and better-off you’ll be. You can’t afford to take insane risks with your livelihood. You’re not just some nerd who “needs” the ability to change his phone’s folder-icons. You have bills to pay. Life is serious. Pick a platform that knows it.

Closed is better for business.

I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter.