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The Diminishing Diminutive Developer

Matt Neuburg’s article above touched a nerve in me almost immediately, not so much because I disagree with him (I don’t) but because I’ve had a number of email discussions with people over the last few months that tie into it. The common thread, I think, is the fate of the small developer. It’s hard to argue with Apple when they say that they must charge high prices for developer tools and developer technical support because those departments can’t be a complete financial drain on the company. It costs Apple money to make those tools and to support developers, and in this day and age of departments needing to be self-sufficient in large organizations (creating humorous situations where different departments in the same organization start nickel-and-diming each other), I imagine Apple’s Developer Technical Support group must feel the need to make some money on its own.

However, what this boils down to, as Matt noted above, is that the entry price to become an Apple developer is becoming rather high. I had a conversation with a friend at Apple, and he admitted that it would cost at least several thousand dollars to get all the basic developer tools and support packages, and a commercial developer could easily pay quite a lot more than that.

The problem is, I would say, that in many ways the health of the platform is linked to the enthusiasm of the developers, and by making it impossible for people to easily start programming on the Mac, it’s more likely that they’ll program for another platform, moving their talent away from the Mac community. Sure, a clever hack like Moire (remember the screensaver Moire?) may not do much for the economics of the platform, but in many ways Moire may have influenced After Dark, and Berkeley Systems has built a pretty hefty company around that program. I don’t believe that the Macintosh market is suffering particularly from a lack of programmer enthusiasm, but if current trends toward ignoring the fate of the small developer continue, there’s no telling what might happen.

Solutions? It’s hard to tell Apple what to do in a field that I’m unfamiliar with, but it seems to me that there should be some simple, low-cost (maybe a few hundred dollars for everything) way for an individual developer to get the necessary tools without having to pay for the development kit for each new technology. Maybe no support goes with such a program, I don’t know.

In the end I think the solution must be OpenDoc. As Matt points out, the primary desktop applications are becoming seriously bloated. (The complaints Matt talked about related to Word 5, which is over two years old. Just think about how much Microsoft could add in those two years.) When you factor in the size of the applications and the brutal checkbox feature wars with the realities of attempting to test on the ever-increasing number of Macs out there, you realize that there’s no way a small developer can compete at all without the focus that OpenDoc can provide. Let’s hope that OpenDoc doesn’t turn out to be another of Apple’s albatross technologies like XTND (nice idea, never went anywhere), Publish & Subscribe (nice idea, implemented poorly and minimally supported), and until recently, Apple events (minimal support from Apple and third parties).

Just to tie in another thread from recent events – the small developer stands little chance with a commercial application as the companies in the industry all get into bed with one another. At the rate industry is imploding we’ll soon have only four or five companies at most sharing 98 percent of the market in every imaginable niche. The small company and the individual developer will be completely squeezed out of existence unless they can compete by developing and supporting OpenDoc tools.

I’d like to think that the Internet could play a large role in this recovery, assuming it happens, since only the Internet can amplify a single person or a small company sufficiently to compete with a large company. A fast tech support person may be able to answer 50 calls in a day, but that same person can probably juggle twice as many cases online, and by making the discussions public and archived, those support questions can easily stick around to help other people without additional effort.

Perhaps this is all idle speculation and off the mark entirely? But what if it’s not? Maybe by talking about this and thinking about it now we as users can better deal with the changes in Apple and in the industry, and in the process help to make it a better place to live, work, and play.

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