iOS: The Runtime System for Innovation

on June 20, 2016

This post may ruffle some feathers.

As I take as step back from Apple’s WWDC, I think a couple of observations are worth making. First, Apple is continuing their trend toward more openness with their platforms. The argument Apple is “closed” no longer holds much water. More importantly, a philosophy around this openness is starting to take form. While Apple is continuing to open up elements of the platform, something they have been criticised before about keeping closed, the underlying theme for the way in which they are becoming more open is through user experience. Apple, it seems, has observed the hard lessons learned from Microsoft’s platforms and Android which, while “open”, more often than not, the extreme degree of openness has an impact on customer experience. That impact can be in security, inconsistency in interfaces or operations, or even just causing fundamental issues of hardware failure. Apple is striving to strike a balance in how they open up core parts of the platform experience they once strictly controlled and are doing so in a way to ensure these past lessons of extreme openness that hurt the customer experience are not repeated.

The criticism Apple so often faced by those who believed their lack of freedom or choice was inhibited by Apple’s closed platforms were often a critique of things very few people do. Very few users want to root their devices or customize them to no end with third party options. The criticism which did hold slightly true was the one that stated such a closed platform fundamentally limited what the consumer could potentially do. Which is why Apple’s slow walk to open up more parts of the platform, and thus give developers/third parties new levels of opportunity to add value to core experiences once controlled by Apple, is so interesting. It speaks to a level of maturity in the market to be open to such new potential, but also for third parties to now also create fundamentally new experiences and in brand new ways. Which is why the moves made by Apple convince me iOS is the primary platform where software and services innovation is going to happen.

That statement has been argued before and is quite difficult to debate if we are honest. The vast majority of new startups being funded are apps focused on iOS. Companies like Google and Microsoft are continuing to create software experiences that also start on iOS and are sometimes iOS only. Apple’s customers remain the most valuable group of humans on the planet which adds to the economic incentives for the focus on iOS and users of the platform. But the big picture observation most interesting to me is that iOS will be the platform where consumers will get the best of all worlds. The best of Apple, the best of Microsoft, the best of Google, the best of Amazon, the best of the startup and entrepreneurial software community, and slowly but surely, the best of the business world. The best of every company’s software and services efforts will be on iOS. This is not something I can say of any other platform. It is not true of Windows, as much as Microsoft hopes it will be with Windows 10, and it is not true of Android.

Apple’s continued position of iOS as the main platform for innovation is extremely difficult to compete with but also extremely attractive from a value proposition as mature market consumers come to understand this reality as it plays out. Furthermore, Apple is starting to take a back seat when it comes to first party software in many areas. The fact you can now delete (actually, hide) Apple’s first party apps in iOS 10 is an admission, in my opinion, that they are surrendering specific experiences to third parties who will do it better. It’s a compromise to make their hardware and their platform the most worthwhile place for software and services innovation. What is interesting are areas where Apple is innovating in first party software. Apps like Photos, iMessage, Home, and others are making the most compelling first party experiences central to Apple’s ecosystem but letting Microsoft be the best at productivity or Facebook with social media for example. Balancing this tradeoff is key in having robust software and services companies make your platform the best place for innovation.

If anything, what Apple did with WWDC cements this direction. Android will continue to have the dominant share of platforms but it will not be the platform where the most interesting and innovative software is. Certainly, some apps and experiences will also be on Android but, en masse, iOS is where all the best companies and brightest minds’ efforts in software and services innovation will converge.