If Apple Really Wants Tinkerers to Love the iPad…

There has been lots of sturm, and more than a little drang, regarding the iPad and death of the “tinkerer” class that its targeted user base represents. Certainly, the iPad, like the iPhone, is a closed ecosystem; you can’t develop for it on it, you can’t control when your apps get updated, you can’t control if your apps get into the App Store, etc. It is a total dictatorship, which Apple trying to play the role of benevolent dictator but coming of more as annoyed loon. But hey, it is working for them, so it isn’t likely to change much.

(As an aside, when nerds bitch about the iPad/iPhone being closed to development, they are mostly right, as far as software development. But down the road, I suspect it will be splendid for other sorts of media creation.)

Look at this graph of Apple earnings (hat tip to Gizmodo). As the article points out, Apple is only barely a computer company anymore — they are and iPhone/iPod company. Soon to be an iPhone/iPod/iPad company, I suspect. It is easy to foresee iPod/iPad/iPhone revenue dwarfing straight personal computer sales for Apple.

Now, I am as much interested in developing for the iPhone as the next guy. But my last Mac was a Sawtooth Blue and White tower bought used off of EBay, and it has long since been retired.

If I am going to buy a machine, it better be a laptop (because I have road-warrior habits and need a steady change of scenery to keep the juices flowing), and, well, those MacBook’s are expensive compared to their PC counterparts. Yes, the Dell’s and HP’s of the world are less sexy, but running Linux they are wicked fast, and I can afford them easily. As I am primarily a Java dev, I spend the bulk of my time in IDE’s and tool sets anyway, and am free to ignore Windows entirely.

Plus, my house already has … let me count … nine computers, plus two work-provided laptops (counting the TiVo and the Wii). I don’t want another computer. I emphatically don’t need another computer.

But that means … I can’t really develop for the iPhone, can I?

Sure, I could by a low-end Mac Mini (even the lowest with 4G of RAM is still $700+), but we all have learned that the time wasted on long compiles is an enormous productivity suck. I’d need to invest $1600 to get a 15″-display Mac laptop — the minimum my forty-plus year-old eyes need. That’s just too much for a machine I’d like to have vs. have to have.

Go back and look at that chart again. This revenue picture, it seems to me, leaves Apple with an interesting opportunity.

If they really want to make life good for tinkerers, slash the prices on Mac’s.

Sell a Mac Mini for $250 — I’d take a flyer on that tomorrow. Sell the MacBook for $600 — I might squint at that price. Sell the 15″ MacBook Pro for $1000 — watch Dell and HP cry. Apple could easily afford to sell them for break-even.

Put together some sort of iPad/iPhone Developer’s Bundle — a fast mac Mini + App Store dev license + pre-loaded SDK and tutorial. Sell it for $350. Sell a bundle of developer Mini + iPad for $850. Watch the developers rush into the ecosystem. Apple of all companies should understand the possibilities of developers in garages.

If Apple does this, then tinkerers stop seeing the iPad/iPhone as a single unit; rather it becomes half of a complete system consisting of a development machine and target machine. Now Apple’s commoditized embedded programming.

In this model, except for the stinky App Store in the middle, the iPad looks like a low-cost-of-entry playground for geeks, and a bulletproof appliance for techno-noobz.

What more does Apple want?

P.S. Eventually they’ll also need to fix the App Store. At the moment, my tentative plan is to go Android when my contract with AT&T expires, because as much of a madhouse as Android development is, I don’t need to buy a new computer to dip a toe in.

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8 Comments on “If Apple Really Wants Tinkerers to Love the iPad…”

  1. Jon Raphaelson Says:

    I’m sorry, but honestly? What Apple _needs_ to do is keep doing what they’re doing, because even despite you not writing for the appstore, and you not buying a mac, they’re doing pretty damn well.

    • designbygravity Says:

      I’m sorry, at no point did I say Apple *needed* to do this. And yes, they will soldier along just fine without me. That doesn’t preclude it from being a good idea, right?

      They’re currently doing more than pretty damn well, yes? 🙂

  2. sedwards Says:

    Steve already tried the “developer-first” approach at NeXT and it tanked. He is now invested in the “customer-first” approach. The platform itself is the killer app, and developers have to pay the tax to get on board.

    Notice that in his keynotes, Steve hardly ever mentions the developer tools. Even though they are essentially the same as the ones that shipped with NeXTStep OS. And in those days he used to call them “the crown jewels” of NeXT. His presentations back then (I attended several in person) were all about the tools, and spent little time on user apps.

    Apparently he has learned a hard lesson, and won’t be shifting gears soon. Personally, I like the platform and tools so much (I am still a NeXT fanboy) that I am more than happy to pay the tax to use them. Sure the alternatives are free, but have you written a GUI in Eclipse? It’s just painful compared to Xcode/InterfaceBuilder. I haven’t looked at the Android platform yet, but I can’t imagine it has comparable sophistication or elegance when compared with OS X, whose tools 20 years of refinement behind them.

    In this case, I think you get what you pay for, but I totally understand why not everybody feels that way.

    • designbygravity Says:

      Oh, I am well aware of the history regarding NeXT and you are probably quite right about how Steve regards the developer side of the equation.

      But the difference is that with Apple in its current state, he actually could afford to slash prices on the PC side of Apple, since the income from the iStuff is so huge, and growing.

      In other words, he has exactly what he didn’t have a NeXT: a huge built-in customer base for the developers to write for.

      And, right now, an enormous opportunity to take a 35%-50% bite out of the PC market.

      Plus, while Android tools are probably far behind, for the foreseeable future there will be money in copy iPhone Apps, which is much easier. And, having played with both a Droid and a G1, Android really is pretty nice.

    • designbygravity Says:

      Plus, as a phone, my iPhone continues to suck compared to every other phone I have owned.

      • sedwards Says:

        So the question is not so much about tinker-ability; that’s just a side effect. Rather, since Apple is now riding high on sales of mobile devices, why don’t they take the opportunity to cut prices on Macs and grab some PC market share?

        Same as always, I guess. Steve doesn’t care as much about market share as he does about being the best (in his view). He would sooner incorporate more features than drop prices and be seen as a commodity.

        • designbygravity Says:

          Well, I see it as an easy win for Apple to do so; the increased market share is probably more headache than they want. But clearly their future revenue is not going to be driven by PC sales, so why not expend a little effort to cater to devs for the iPlatform.

          And it would remove the perceived tinkerers lockout.

  3. cellurl Says:

    Android will become what the Palm Pilot was, the toolkit for an era. Everyone is programming the Android.

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