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Going public

July 05, 2009 ・ Blog

About a day after releasing the game, I got a mail saying basically “well, you got my money, but I can’t play your app because it crashes.”

To me, this feels like getting punched in the stomach: Somebody gave you his or her money, and the app doesn’t work because you screwed up or didn’t test enough or didn’t think of some special case. They have every right to be pissed off, because you basically stole their money.

So says a Swiss programmer called Lukas Mathis about his first app for iPhone, a game called Goo Gun. His fascinating blog post reveals some of the pressures that result when a single coder, like him, releases a program for sale on a global marketplace.

Though his app is essentially sound, it’s subject to the vast range of conditions in which the 20-odd million iPhones (and lord knows how many iPod Touches) presently at large operate. Whether users have reset their machines to clear memory of unnecessary data and application processes, which can lead to the few cases of crashes and low memory warnings his game was throwing up. Whether users have installed the latest version of the phone’s operating system. Or whether they’ve been jailbroken - that is, whether the user has cracked the security on their iPhone in order to have freedom to install any program they like on it.

The latter condition can mean that the iPhone’s memory and resources can be eaten up by software that Apple has not certified, constricting other programs’ operations, but not that many users would know about that. And their natural reaction is to question the quality of the software they’ve paid for.

It’s a circumstance that throws up two interesting questions. The first is the legitimacy of cracking closed platforms like iPhone. It’s easy to feel that any product you’ve bought is yours and thereby believe you should have complete freedom over what you do with it. With that in mind, Apple’s control over what you can and can’t install on your iPhone is highly questionable. But Mathis’ predicament illustrates a convincing argument for such restraint - control the conditions and you have a chance to present a unified platform for programmers like him to create products for.

The other is the effect that the App Store has had in giving ‘bedroom’ programmers unparalleled closeness to the public. Without the resources of a large publisher behind them, they don’t have anything like the opportunity to test and hone their products against the vast array of conditions to which their apps will be exposed. And that leaves them exposed to the slings and arrows of public reaction - whether written for all to see on the App Store or sent in personal messages.

For all his fundamental confidence in his game, Mathis blames himself, but he sees the bigger picture. I wonder how well other programmers take it.