Can iPhone applications evolve past the fad? News at 11.

I’ve been scratching my head lately at Apple’s iPhone application store, wondering what grand plan is at work in Cupertino. iPhone applications are terrific, and the breadth of the platform could give the device a commanding lead over its rivals. Certain apps, like Remote, Google, Twitterific and NYTimes are remarkable additions to the platform and are certainly evidence of a brilliant future. 

But all is not well in paradise — will Apple shoot itself in the foot before it’s platform can blossom? 

There have been reports that Apple Inc. has been pulling applications willy-nilly off of its online store, sometimes for reasons as arbitrary as not liking their user interface. While preserving the iPhone user interface “brand” seems like a smart move, pissing off developers is not. Companies like Null River spend considerable up-front resources developing on Apple’s platform, and having their revenue source pulled for unexpected reasons seems harsh. For Apple to maintain a healthy market, a degree of transparency must exist otherwise developers will abandon the platform once the fad passes. I personally would hate to have invested thousands of development hours only to be told that my application was getting de-listed.  

Every time I click through page after page of semi-useless applications on the online store, I can’t help but remember “Dashboard”, the feature in Macintosh OSX that lets you download and install desktop widgets. When this feature was launched, Dashboard widgets were incredibly popular. Macintosh developers all flocked to write their own, in some cases taking concepts better suited to standalone applications and shoe-horning them into the format. It was only after the hype condensed that developers (and Apple) began to tune their content to the medium and the value of the platform became established.

So what does it mean, if both Apple and its developers need to climb a learning curve together to maximize the value of the iPhone platform? First, developers must be able to be rewarded for their efforts on a fair playing field. History teaches the importance of developer relations in building indirect network effects. Secondly, Apple and its developers must be able to learn together, and thus be able to experiment together. Apple cannot step in with an overabundance of hubris that it necessarily knows the future direction of its platform. Thirdly, both Apple and its developers must put the customer first, and provide the right long term signals to consumers that its platform will evolve past its early hiccups.

[Updated, 8/10 with a link over to Apple 2.0, where blogger Philip Elmer-DeWitt made a similar observation.]