iPhone: 10 years on
Given the recent events of WWDC I have been thinking about the next iPhone quite a bit, wondering what is coming. Of course I knew this was the 10 year anniversary of the iPhone, but the actual date it went on sale had slipped my mind. However, this product launch more than any other changed the direction of my career ever since. The iPhone changed everything about developing software and it certainly changed Marino Software.
Myself and several of the people involved in the early days of Marino Software had worked on mobile applications before the iPhone. We were involved in a mobile games publisher called Upstart Games, based in Dublin. Our CEO at the time, Barry O’Neill, pulled off something of a coup in that he convinced Japanese game developer Konami to agree to let a small Irish company develop and publish Frogger in western markets for mobile phones. It was amazing to be working on such high profile titles and Barry secured more great titles over the next few years including Contra, Castlevania and Gradius.
However from a technical point of view the problems with mobile development quickly became apparent. At that point in time mobile app development was focused on two software development platforms: Java Midlets and Brew. Midlets were by far the most dominant with Brew really only available on Verizon handsets.
The first problem was that each handset manufacturer was responsible for implementing the Java API themselves. Many sections of the API were optional, so a handset could technically meet the standard for a version of the API, but only implement a subset of the library. I’m looking at you Motorola. So often the games had to be tailored to the handset in question as each implementation was quite different.
Also many of the mobile operators had requirements specific to themselves, JAR files that had to be included if you wanted a game to be distributed on the operator’s portal.
These two problems meant that we created over 1200 builds of Frogger and it’s easy to see how we got to those numbers if you multiply out the combinations of manufacturer, operator and language. So for each game that was ported, developers could stay on that title for years, just porting to new devices, often only slightly different.
The second major problem was distribution. The only way to distribute your titles at this time was to work with each mobile operator to include the game in their portal. OK, there were also some independent sites but mostly you wanted your game carried by the operators. Granted titles like Frogger had a strong case for inclusion, but each operator still had their own custom portal, which could be delivered by different means such as WAP or iMode. As a small company you had to cut each deal with each operator which was huge overhead.
A New Start
Upstart Games wrapped up in 2006 and I started Marino Software shortly afterwards, swearing I would never work on mobile applications again. I never wanted to go back on the treadmill.
Then in 2007 Steve Jobs got on the stage and presented the classic three-devices-in-one explanation of the first iPhone. Of course it wasn’t available in Ireland but I got one quickly — on eBay I think. It’s still in a drawer here somewhere, with a slightly cracked screen. It didn’t have have 3G, wasn’t very fast and couldn’t run 3rd party apps but straight away it felt like the most advanced device you had ever owned. The beauty of the touch screen device and iOS was a complete change from Nokia’s Symbian or the Blackberry devices of the time.
I always think of the quote from the Palm CEO Ed Colligan just before the iPhone was released in 2006. He was explaining how he had no fear of the iPhone, because “We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.” But thats exactly what they did. They didn't just figure it out either, they jumped years ahead of all the competition. Apple saw where the puck was going to be.
The industry scrambled to catch up, the next few years resulted in a new “iPhone Killer” arriving in the press every few months. We are still waiting.
It wasn’t long before we saw the initial releases of Android, which were completely awful. However, in the years that followed it has made huge leaps every year, along with tighter integration to Google services. It’s really just a user choice now.
So the first problem is solved, there are two platforms for the most part. And they are provided as Operating Systems. No partially implemented APIs. (I know some people will jump in with an Android “Fragmentation” point of order, but it’s just nowhere near as bad as it was in the Java Midlet days). We complain now about having to build for both, but you might have to make two variants of a build, maybe some more if you are building for other devices such as tablets or televisions, but mostly two. Not 1200.
The second problem, distribution. One year after the iPhone launch, Apple opened up the App Store. It has proven to be the template for how distribution of mobile apps would work at least until now. The model of a centralised store with the publisher taking a stake of the revenue has stuck, and companies such as Google, Microsoft, Samsung and Amazon all have some version of the same thing.
So now as a small company, we can publish an app to all iOS and Android users in two stores. We don’t have to go through any complex vendor approval process. We just sign up as developers and publish. I’m fully aware of the complaints about these stores. Nowadays, people feel the publisher cut is too high, store placement is a problem and so on, but the current situation is so much better than what went before.
With these problems solved we embraced mobile development again in a big way. It started as a small percentage of our revenue, but quickly grew to almost all of it. We got to build apps we shared with our children featuring characters like Elmo and Curious George. Most importantly, the explosion in smart phone app revenue co-incided with the biggest global recession in living memory. Thanks to mobile apps we grew through that time, laid no one off and never cut a salary.
So today I can make a mobile app on two platforms, publish to two stores and address about 95% of the market while doing so. This was all made possible by the iPhone and the App Store. Steve Jobs saw what had to be done to mobile phone hardware, he had to be convinced of selling 3rd party apps but the launch of the iPhone on the 29th June 2007 created the entire industry we work in today.