Better To Ask Forgiveness

September 19th, 2008

The tension among iPhone developers is palpable, as hundreds of us wait anxiously for Apple to lift the NDA restrictions that prevent us from discussing development on the platform with the public, or even discussing it amongst ourselves.

It’s widely expected that the iPhone developer community will inherit this charming aspect of the Mac developer community: its insatiable desire to share techniques and code, making us all more productive and more capable of creating top-notch applications. The quality of applications on the Mac is legendary, and helps to fuel a cycle of positive feedback among and between software developers, customers, and Apple itself.

The question on more and more minds is whether the secrecy imposed by Apple will seriously threaten the speed or degree to which this kind of healthy innovative environment develops on the iPhone platform. Some suggest that innovation has already been catastrophically stunted, but I think that analysis is hyperbolic. While the AppStore is filled to the brim with titles that many people wouldn’t hesitate to classify as “junk,” there are also numerous examples of brilliant ideas brought to reality. The question isn’t so much whether the iPhone platform will thrive, but to what extent and how efficiently it will do so.

Perhaps the darkest angle of our ongoing wait for the lifting of Apple’s iPhone NDA, is that we seem to be “waiting for Godot.” The parallels to the fabled character are pretty weak, but I can’t help but think myself a fool when I observe that I, along with countless others, am waiting for a happy day which may never come.

We have to face the fact that Apple may never lift the NDA. We don’t know all of the causes or motivations for their persisting in enforcing it, and they don’t seem anxious to share. This story becomes more tragic and more comedic with each passing day, as Apple allows events that are widely perceived as violations of the NDA to go unpunished, and opens up new niches of freedom that don’t benefit the very developers who are adding the most value to the system.

Today, Apple announced a free program for student iPhone developers. This program seems to endorse learning about and discussing iPhone development in an academic environment, which is great news. The part that stings is this is a privilege which those of us in the professional world are still not convinced we have.

The announcement drove developer Craig Hockenberry of The Iconfactory to a point of protest. Craig has been publicly decrying the NDA since the AppStore opened, and alluding to a number of blog posts which he hopes to share once the NDA is lifted. Today, apparently enraged by the academic program announcement, he decided the time had come to share one of his pending blog posts, NDA be damned. Lights Off is an iPod adaptation by Lucas Newman of the popular handheld electronics game, Lights Out. Craig adapted the original to the official iPhone SDK, and has decided to publish the project’s source code.

The old phrase suggests that it may be better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. As we stand around like buffoons, waiting for an NDA dismissal that may never happen, perhaps we should start entertaining ourselves. Regaling each other with valuable iPhone development tips and source code might help us to pass the time more easily. And in the event Godot never does arrive, we should feel slightly less foolish for having at least put our time to good use in the interim.

9 Responses to “Better To Ask Forgiveness”

  1. Colin Barrett Says:

    A well written argument, Daniel. However…

    There’s definitely a part of me that wants to avoid the coming iPhone trainwreck entirely a la Frasier Spiers, that is to say just quitting developing iPhone applications.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that accomplishes a whole lot. This is a classic dilemma: can you do more to help inside or out the system? I think for now I’m going to hang out in UIKit limbo and see how things to play out.

  2. Karl Adam Says:

    I still don’t see why anyone would be all up in arms about the academic program. The NDA has always allowed you to discuss code and insights you’ve gleaned from NDA material with co-workers at the same institution as yourself whether it be a large company or college/university. Would we be regarding this as being slighted if these schools already had iPhone apps developed by professors there that signed up for the SDK, NDA and all? Even the provisioning model is the same as we have now except rather than ad-hoc, it’s more for a class to distribute applications amongst each other.

  3. Anthony Says:

    “The NDA has always allowed you to discuss code and insights you’ve gleaned from NDA material with co-workers at the same institution as yourself”

    Someone needs to create an LLC and then “hire” all the iPhone developers.

  4. macpug Says:

    @anthony EXACTLY! I can see a whole core group of folks like @danielpunkass, @chockenberry, @taptaptap -since John doesn’t tweet :), @sophiestication, @gruber, @wilshipley, @brentsimmons, and quite a few others, forming a little corporation so they could discuss things amongst themselves without being in violaltion of the ‘f’ing NDA’ as it has come to be known.

    Independent developers learn so much from each other, and this should be no exception. Who knows the reason(s) Apple is not lifting this thing, but it’s just gone far past ridiculous! Excellent post Daniel, and kudos to Craig for having the cajones to post his comments and code as well.

  5. Danny Says:

    I would not be surprised if the NDA is permanent. We’ve gotten used to open discussion of the Mac APIs over the last decade but it has not always been so – remember when Mac development required purchase of ‘Inside Mac’ or even further back, when one had to buy an Apple Lisa and the Macintosh development kit?

    Developers on the DS, PSP, Playstation and XBox are also under a permanent NDA which is traditional for ‘closed’ platforms. The tools required for these systems cost thousands and come with a list of legal requirements. Apple could have gone very much the same way, charging for the XCode toolchain likewise.

    I feel that two things have annoyed iPhone devs more than anything else:
    1) Apple’s inconsistent handling of the App Store – allowing junk apps to multiply while rejecting jems like PodCaster for violating ‘rules’ that were never stated, nor agreed too by either party. The system is flawed. Who is going to spend the effort developing apps that may well be rejected upon submission for breaking some secret rule?

    2) Apple refusing to discuss the NDA status. They could have stated the NDA would be permanent at launch but they said nothing leaving Mac devs to assume it would be lifted just like every other NDA.

    Apple has handled this whole thing badly from the start. Remember the pseudo JavaScript ‘API’ that they released at first? The MobileMe fiasco? I don’t know what’s happened within Apple over the last year but something has gone very wrong.

  6. Jonathan Says:

    It might be fun to create a subcontractor ring. Sign up on a web site and pay a dollar. That dollar gets forwarded on to the last guy who paid a dollar and now you’re his subcontractor, who is that guy’s subcontractor, who is somebody else’s subcontractor. Giant linked-list of subcontractors…

  7. Natalie Says:

    As soon as I read the title to your post “Better to ask Forgiveness”, I completely related.

    My husband and I leave on September 30th to backpack to various countries around the world for a year or so. As we have been planning for our adventure we have been updating a blog. http://www.nomadbackpackers.com

    So, we leave in 8 days! I don’t think our family and friends have realized yet that we really plan on being gone for a year, two years…who knows?

    It’s our new lifestyle (backpacking) and at this point we have not asked permission (we are grown adults right?) we may have to ask forgiveness.


  8. Luis de la Rosa Says:

    Jonathan: I think even the legal world would be wary of infinite loops. :)

    Natalie: Backpacking is under NDA? I never knew!

    Daniel: Thanks for the link. Not to promote the “competition”, but WordPress has also released the source for their iPhone app for a little while. I think though that you’re right – the spirit of the NDA should be honored (keep mobile device competitors from learning what a good API should be like) while still allowing sympathetic developers to communicate with each other to spread good practices and become better, especially if they’ve all been vetted through the Registered iPhone Developer program. That should result in better applications to be developed which is better for the platform and because of the App Store, should result in more revenue for Apple.

  9. britt Says:

    Uhh… this doesn’t keep competitors from learning what a good API looks like.


    or just grab any Mac with the dev tools on it, and flip through the documentation on the drive. Then, just extrapolate from a window/mouse driven UI to a full-screen touch UI.

    Even rocket science is easy when you have the Esets assembly manual…

    … and I’m 100% positive that there’s NO reason why they can’t make a statement about the reasons for having the NDA in the first place. It doesn’t help them legally to keep that a secret. It doesn’t help them technologically. It doesn’t help them financially. If anything, it’s actually harmful to them. Even Nintendo will tell you *why* they have an NDA. Sheesh!

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