iOS 8 – is it the end of an era for indie mavericks?

iOS 8 – It’s out, officially. And things are never the same.

Indie iOS Dev – the long time victim:

Indie iOS developers find themselves at the crossroads of something radical. While I don’t go far to conclude things are worsening, things are definitely evolving.

Whenever evolution takes place, old species must mutate, or make ways for the newer ones.

This time around, (again!) it’s likely to be the indie dev community. To everyone who has slightest idea, this is an ever-shrinking sailing ship since iOS inception, not necessarily pitted against steam powered boats or anything of the cruise class. But as everyone knows, iOS Appstore is the pinnacle of the crudest capitalist inequality on the planet. In other words, rephrasing the 80-20 principle, 1% of the app publishers draw away 99% of the app store revenue – the majority comprising the indie devs.

The irony is – it’s this community that keeps app store dream alive, eventually keeping the app market afloat on the planet.

Because more than God, it’s the faith in God that is important. The loss of this faith scares even the priests, like hell.

-Anonymous

Indie devs bear the hardest blows, either from big boats or the never-yielding tides. On the surface, it seems it doesn’t change anything for all those super-excited fanboys and gamers. The laws of evolution automatically pushes better boys to the top, who in turn keep indie dream alive: If someone belongs to the top lists, she deserves to be there. Following the laws of free market, customers must be happy too, for they are the ones who have pushed the biggies towards where they stand today.

However, when a quality indie fail, there are some side effects waiting to emerge after some time. One of those were demonstrated pretty well during the flight of Flappy Bird. Yes, the entire app-cloning industry relies on indie devs who made an ingenious piece of software but simply failed to secure the biggest validators of their success – money and fame.

The result? They make app (& game) templates of successful apps made by themselves, or someone else. Then they sell them for good (but not great) money. Copycats purchase them for a dime (OK, $99). Clones flood the top lists. Gamers enjoy, but only for a while until the charm lasts, and the entire mania recedes. The app clones get pushed towards the bottom. But by the time, cloners have already made more than what they deserved, due to sheer volume of the store. And there is nothing built inside app store algorithm to push quality indie devs further up the chart when clones endure the fall.

The end result? Users get the shit. App store will keep inflating till a point when the bubble will burst. Note the dilemma – the app store, and not the iOS itself, will take the plunge. Lest someone big really makes something worthwhile that can keep the flock invested.

Either way, the indie dev who made the original piece never gets his due – neither money, nor the fame. All wasn’t lost, however.

Until iOS 8 happened.

Precursor – the predator in disguise:

iOS 8 was a change waiting to happen. But it’s preamble was set with the release of iOS 7 – which brought forth major shifts such as a thing called skeuomorphism – a shift from the world of bevels and shadows. And numbered became the days of UI experts who made our apps truly outstanding, in literal sense. Off course, gaming industry will keep employing them heavier than ever, but as far as app UI design is concerned, the creativity domain of a UI designer will become fairly limited.

Apple also became sensitive towards its role in enterprise domain by introducing iBeacon in iOS 7. Being dependent on big chains for its adoption, this is one more domain where little can be done through indie dev’s will (but definitely not without his skill).

Even bigger shift in direction came via Spritekit. And to understand it, one must go back to foundation days of iOS. When I was new to iOS world, I was continually amazed how so many 2D and 3D games flooded the app stores despite steep learning curve of OpenGL. And I didn’t have to bury my head into books before I knew there existed a framework called Cocos2D that filled the gap between a game designer’s scene and complex shaders of OpenGL.

With the introduction of Spritekit, the entire ilk of Cocos2d evangelist would be rendered useless. Not that they wouldn’t find something worthwhile to do; they will, for sure. But few novice gamers would be eager to know about them, and even fewer people will realize how an entire Apple framework was conceived and born through their sheer indie will.

iOS 8 – predator or savior?

With iOS 8, all this evolved into its fullest metaphysical sense of existence. iOS 8 completed full circle of many changes that iOS 7 initiated. In parlance of software source control management:

iOS 7 can be termed as a build; iOS 8 is a version. And a major one.

Extensions brought in the long-sought customizations into UI Design. This will bring so many developers into the mainstream, who earlier had to develop their own extension frameworks – sometimes just to release their apps on Cydia-guild app stores, instead of Apple’s own. Extensions in iOS 8, especially aimed at app bundles instead of single apps, would benefit big studios more than indie ones who have one or two high quality apps at max. The app audience would surely benefit, but the steam would be lost, with sophisticated APIs to assist Swift newbies. And all those Objective-C veterans who had it the hard way would sit and watch.

That reminded us of Swift. There are few meek voices raising their concern about the very reason of Swift’s existence. Except for Apple. Yes, yet another block of clueless programmers waiting to create mobile apps would jump in the Apple queue. Not that they aren’t welcome.

Everyone who entered the programming foray had it easier than their ancestors.

With Swift’s oversimplified programming constructs (still arguable), many hypotheses would be laid to rest. One of them being: ‘An app developer should be a programming veteran having stronghold on OS, resources and memory management’. Perhaps it was Apple’s way to pre-defying any possible competition in iOS app code generation. But it may turn itself into a war between Objective C veterans and the new age Swift developers where the later may have an unfair advantage of better hardware and simpler structures. True, same argument can held between assembly and C++ camps, but C++ still maintained the need for software programmers’ understanding of hardware capability and sensible class design. With Swift’s super-easy programming constructs that are never destined for crash, the road will be over-smooth, 6-lane wide and without any apparent traffic. While such roads improve driving experience, overspeeding is inevitable; and innocents are victims most of the time, if not always.

Cloudkit is forever set to obliterate many use cases for 3rd party back-end. This is one of the changes that deserves an extra article. And to be fair, it is something Apple did in favor of indie devs, as far as intention is concerned. With 50 GB of storage incentive, it is lucrative enough for newcomers to defy any server side development and research on external APIs. While it may lure indie devs with almost free data storage, they would need to upgrade themselves if they want their cloud to be smart enough to handle complex application logic. At the same time, all those upgrades will happen inside Apple’s cloud walls, so the community would be at a loss. Smart code, but chained.

Healthkit is one more feature that is likely to drive niche developers – someone having some medical background in addition to programming. Considering the research and resources this field requires, and the regulations it entails, this is more likely to attract enterprises who are already into the foray, rather than indie programmers.

Since 2010 with retina screen of iPhone 4, there came a herd of Photo-filter apps, most of them relying on open source third party SDKs to create creative effects. In the absence of such SDKs, mavericks often wrote them. The whole effort gave us some really awesome image processing algorithms, both using Core Image as well as OpenGL. But this trend will go downhill after the introduction of Photokit. New programmers, especially the ones who joined the Swift bandwagon, are never likely to know about those awesome third party SDKs, and the hours of perspiration spent for the benefit of community.

Conclusion:

  • Like any other feature rich update, iOS 8 will set the tone for newer kind of apps. However, these changes being in favor of large scale enterprises or Apple itself, indie devs are going to take the blow.
  • Change is inevitable. Earlier you embrace it, the better. Indie devs must suit themselves to iOS systems aimed at enterprise, for only they can churn out utilities from frameworks. And while doing this, keep the torch of community contributions alive, to keep the app world livable. Advice? Hope for the best, and never be unprepared to face the worse.
  • iOS (objective C?) veterans aren’t an endangered species waiting to be rescued from winds of change. What needs to be rescued is their undying attitude and will to change things for future.
  • Despite it’s radical set of innovations, iOS 8 is not declaratively good. On the other hand, it’s not bad either. The only thing that is sure is, it’s different. The change doesn’t ooze freshness as it should, for now.
  • Despite all the pessimism around indie devs who cannot sustain motivation to create and contribute, there exists torch-bearers who have kept the flame burning. Till this flame lasts, the programming passions will keep burning and enlightening the universe.

For all we know for now, iOS 8 is an evolution that gives us new weapons, at the cost of killer instinct.

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