Why did Apple give in?

I've rarely been so happy to be wrong as I was yesterday when I heard that Apple had relaxed some of the restrictions it puts on third party software apps for iOS. In case you somehow missed the news, iPhone and iPad apps can now be written in third party languages like Flash and Java. Apple also changed rules that would have made it difficult for outside advertising systems like Google's AdMob to insert ads in iOS apps.

I'd predicted a couple of months ago that Apple probably wouldn't give in on those terms, so it was a surprise -- but a very pleasant one, for a couple of reasons. First, and most important, I think it's good for app developers. The more ways they have to create apps, the more easily they can do business. But speaking as someone who's working on a startup, I was also personally pleased. We're doing a lot of development work in Java, and I'd been worried about the rework if we decided we needed a native client on iOS. Now the problem's solved (or at least it should be by the time we ship).

Although Flash and Java are getting all the attention in the press coverage, Apple's decision also has a huge effect on some smaller companies making development tools. For example, the folks at Runtime Revolution, who make one of my favorite prototyping tools, announced instantly that they'd be supporting iOS (link). And I'll be interested to see if the StyleTap Palm OS emulator will now be able to run on Apple devices that haven't been jailbroken.

This leaves us with the question of why Apple changed its policy. The Wall Street Journal speculated that Apple might have been trying to forestall legal action by the US government (link). The New York Times said it was a competitive response to Android's increasing momentum (link).

I wonder if Apple wasn't also influenced by the Library of Congress' recent ruling that phone companies can't use copyright law to prevent jailbreaking of phones (jailbreaking in this context permits a device to run applications that weren't approved by the manufacturer). Although jailbreaking is rare on iOS today, with the ruling companies were free to start promoting it. Apple may have felt that it was better to loosen up the rules of the App Store, rather than risk a lot of customers bypassing the store entirely.

They're all plausible explanations, and there's no reason why they couldn't all be correct. But I hope there's something deeper going on. As I've written before, when a company reaches a certain level of success, many of the business practices that were foundational to its growth can turn into liabilities. It's kind of like watching a kid grow up -- behavior that's understandable in a 10-year-old ("You got in a fight with Johnny? I'll get the Neosporin.") becomes antisocial in an adult ("You got in a fight with Johnny? You're under arrest.")

Apple has definitely reached that transition point. The aggressive business tactics that were acceptable for scrappy underdog Apple look like bullying and arrogance in industry leader Apple. Companies usually stumble on this transition, because their image of themselves doesn't change to match their altered role. When Microsoft hit it at the end of the 1990s, it responded with denial, aggressiveness, and defiance. The result was years of incredibly distracting litigation. The company has never been the same since.

Has Apple learned from Microsoft's lesson? Understanding Apple's internal decision-making is only slightly easier than understanding North Korea's, so we probably won't know for sure until years from now when somebody retires and writes a memoir. But I hope, for the sake of everyone in the Apple ecosystem, that this is the start of a kinder, gentler Apple.

Assuming it is, here are a few guidelines on how Apple the Leader should behave:

Aim to cripple, not kill. The old Apple routinely reached for the nuclear weapons when threatened by an outside firm. (Remember Power Computing? link) That was OK when Apple's own survival was at risk, but it's bad form for a company that's too big to fail. Instead, your goal is to damage your competitors to the point where they can't threaten your survival, but are still somewhat viable. Remember, dying competitors file antitrust suits; weak competitors are just whiners.

If you can't think of something nice to say about someone, lie. Apple has thrived on the drama of competition against the evil overlord (go rewatch the "1984" commercial if you want to understand how deeply this is a part of Apple's psyche). This confrontational style has seeped into public communications ranging from Apple's Mac vs. PC commercials to Apple's bitter statements about Adobe a couple of months ago. That all has to stop (and, interestingly, the Mac vs. PC ads already did). For a huge company like Apple, beating up on competitors makes you look like an arrogant bully. Repeat after me: "They're an impressive company, and we respect their accomplishments." It'll feel gross for a while, but you'll get used to it.

Pick your fights. Let go of issues that don't truly threaten your survival. Flash is a perfect example -- although in theory it's threatening, in practice Adobe has shown very little ability to turn it into a major cross-platform app environment. In fact, the whole Flash/Air thing was fading into obscurity until Apple gave it a big boost of publicity by attacking it. Hey, Apple -- you helped old, bureaucratic Adobe position itself as the spunky competitor against your Microsoftian monolith. Was that what you wanted?

The right way to contain the threat from platforms like Flash is to make sure Apple's own platform continues to innovate rapidly, and take better care of developers than anyone else.

Listen carefully. Because your instincts are tuned to the old rebel Apple, you're likely to mis-position yourself frequently while you learn the new rules. Admit to yourself that you have a problem, and manage it proactively. In the era of the Internet, there's no excuse for being blindsided by an issue. Right now you're putting out fires after they become obvious. If you listen carefully, you can respond to an issue before the firestorm builds up.

Occasionally admit you're wrong. People love a powerful person who's willing to admit being wrong. It makes you look humble. The same thing applies to companies. When you realize you need to back down on an issue, don't try to hide the fact. Tell people you listened to them and decided you were wrong. You got halfway there in the statement about the App Store changes: "We have listened to our developers and taken much of their feedback to heart." You should lose the phrase "much of" because it reads as a cheap shot; it implies that some of the things developers said were not worth paying attention to. And what I don't hear yet is the second most difficult three-word phrase to say in the English language: "We were wrong."

It's possible to overdo this sort of thing, of course. You shouldn't be backing down in public more than about twice a year, or you'll look indecisive. Between the store and the iPhone antenna thing, you've now used your quota for 2010. So keep your nose clean for the rest of the year.

Stay on offense. The key to the long-term survival of Apple is innovation and creating new product categories. Once you've stopped thrashing over distractions like antennas and store terms (not to mention federal lawsuits), you can focus more time on creating the next generation iPad, and developing new category products like Apple TV. Those are the things that really matter for your future. The more time you spend on them, the better Apple's prospects. By letting go of your underdog baggage, you give yourself the freedom to make those future products great.