David Heinemeier Hansson

February 16, 2022

Gritting your teeth, biding your time

What's the goodwill of developers worth to a platform operator? It's a hard question, because it can't be answered by the traditional economic models used by bean counters to populate the balance sheet. And it's far more ephemeral than the goodwill of consumers. The relationship is more intertwined. We're not just engaging in transactions, we're lifting each other up. Good developers breed strong platforms, and strong platforms attract good developers. When it works, it's symbiotic.

There's nothing symbiotic about Apple's current relationship with its developers.

Every time Apple mobilizes its law machine to squash a developer in court, foil democratic accountability in the legislatures, or give regulators the middle finger, Apple wounds the relationship with developers. They can win every battle in court, lobby around every hearing in the house, and pay all the trifling regulatory fines, and still ultimately end up losing something far more long-term important than a monopoly tax rake.

This state of affairs is depressingly ironic to those of us who embraced Apple in the early 2000s to get away from Microsoft. Back then, Microsoft was the big bully of tech, and, for a while, just as unavoidable as Apple is today. You were either on Windows or you were nowhere. Just like with the iPhone now.

I remember having a deep dislike of every PC I owned through the 90s. Partly because I had come from the Amiga, which just felt like such a nicer, more cohesive platform. And the only reason I had to go with the PC was because Commodore fumbled their lead and languished. The Amiga spirit was inspiring, but the PC was alive. You could either worship a shrine or move with the times. I choose, begrudgingly, the latter.

This animosity really reached its zenith with the infamous directive from Microsoft to "cut off the air supply" to Netscape. The internet was to become our way out of Microsoft's dominant tyranny, and of course Gates & Gang weren't going to let that happen without a fight. So they fought in the same petulant way that we'd later recognize from Cook.

But the DOJ wounded Microsoft's aspiration of domination, and that was enough of an opening for Apple to sweep in with the unix-backed OS X operating system just after the millennium. It was a breath of fresh air unlike any other. I dumped my Sony Vaio and tall beige PC tower as soon as I got my hands on one of those beautiful, white iBooks running OS X 10.1 Puma.

Actually, it was more than a breath of fresh air. It felt like a release and a rebellion at once. A way to finally put action behind all those years of gritted teeth. A way to finally say: Fuck you, Microsoft.

It was satisfying. Very, very satisfying. And that satisfaction accrued largely to Apple. I became a ferocious advocate for the Mac. First converting nearly my entire class at university, then doing my best to convert as many developers in the growing web community soon after.

Apple was in our corner. Apple was our escape. Oh how the world has turned. I guess you either die a hero (salute Commodore) or you live long enough to become the villain (hello Apple).

So here we are twenty years later. Apple has planted all the same seeds of discord with developers as Microsoft did in the 90s. But somehow even more ruthlessly and greedy than the boss that came before it. What a story arc.

But the story ain't over yet. Seemingly every competition authority and every legislature around the world has an open antitrust case into Apple. The weekly €5 million fines in The Netherlands are stacking up while the American congress is about to discuss the biggest app store reform package we've ever seen and individual states from Arizona to Illinois continue to push ahead with their own laws. The momentum here far outstrips that facing Microsoft in the late 90s from the DOJ, but Apple is also a far bigger beast than Redmond was back then.

At the same time, we may actually stand at the cusp of the kind of tectonic plate shift that the web and Apple's unix-backed OS X provided in the early 2000s. Maybe it's the metaverse, maybe it's web3, maybe it's Microsoft staging a comeback as the Sith Lord that became a Jedi. It feels like there's some electric energy in the air.

And when that happens, if it happens, there'll be thousands upon thousands of developers ready. With their gritted teeth. Who had been bidding their time. To say those magic, releasing words of someone finally free: Fuck you, Apple. We're done.

Then we'll get the answer of what those developer relationships were worth as a retrospect. And who knows, maybe one day we'll see a redeemed Cook dancing around a podium with sweaty hands clapping DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS. DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS. DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS, DEVELOPERS.

ballmer clapping develoeprs.jpg

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.