Friday, April 09, 2010

Apple opens up: Open Source at work

It has been an interesting five days for Apple, and myself. It developed in three parts.

Part I
I received my iPad on Saturday. I followed the package from China (back) to Silicon Valley on the UPS site, daily. On Friday, I thought it would not make it on time. On Saturday, I kept looking out of the window to see the UPS truck. It arrived at midday. I opened it up, downloaded the Funambol app and synced all my contacts. It worked flawlessly. A big smile on my face.

I played with the device for days, brought it on a plane, used it on the couch, the bed, out in full sunlight. My conclusion is the same of when I first heard about it: it is a home desktop replacement. Something that makes total sense inside your home. The future of computing for the non-geeks, the other 99% of the population.

It is phenomenal for entertainment. Videos are great: I both rented a movie and "found" one divx movie online, converted and synced. Photos look awesome. I bought a book and it is nice to read in bed, without turning on the light (my wife appreciates it). It is the ultimate gaming machine: we downloaded WeRule and my daughter is still harvesting crops, every morning. I read the NYT after breakfast and I do not miss the paper a bit (heck, I finish reading and my fingers are not black from ink, that should count).

It is ok for everything else. Typing is ok, but I missed my keyboard badly. It is fine to write a short sentence on an iPhone, but with that large thing in your hands, you wish you could write longer emails (and the email app is so-so). The address book up is uninspiring (while the calendar is very nice).

It is bad for off-line use (even if you have 3G). All apps sort of sync but not enough. On the plane, you can see only the last 50 emails (you can push it to 200), and that is the time I use to catch up with my Inbox. Most apps are unusable without a connection. It is bad in sunlight: you simply can't read it. And I found myself wiping off finger prints three times a day.

Again, my conclusion is that it is phenomenal in the house. Best for entertainment. Enough for most non-geek users as their main connected "computer". Not really well suited for power users to be their main device. Not meant to be mainly carried around, although I would do it anyway because it is good enough.

Overall, the iPad is a platform with enormous potential, and definitely the future of home computing. It is going to have a large market, moving from niche to niche.

Part II
Now, here you have the second part of the week: I got depressed... We could not develop anything on it. We have a contacts app, which is kinda useless standalone. We could not have access to the calendar, because it was not in the API. Or the pictures. Apple blocked access to everything that matters to Funambol.

I had the future of computing in my hands and I could not develop anything useful on it.

For months, we had an internal debate: we should implement ActiveSync, pay Microsoft royalties and ask the user to create a fake Exchange account to sync contacts and calendar; we should implement CalDAV and ask the user to download our app for contacts, then guide him/her to set up a completely separate CalDAV account. We debated and the conclusion was always the same: it does not make any sense. The user will get confused. It is so much work for such a crappy experience. We are not developing software for geeks, we are doing it for the other 99%.

I told everyone that Apple will eventually get it. That they will open their APIs. That they will feel the pressure of open source, from Android, to Symbian, to Meego.

Honestly, I was not believing it myself anymore. I got even more depressed.

Part III
Yesterday, the unthinkable happened. Apple announced the iPhone 4.0 OS. Christmas came for Easter. Santa brought APIs for calendar and pictures. Apple gave us access to everything we needed.

Problem solved (the community has already developed a calendar sync app, it just works only on jailbroken devices), life is good. We can build the transparent cloud syncing service for the masses, including all those iPhone, iPod, iPad users.

How happy does it make me? Very. I got lucky. Again. Someone somewhere seems to be cheering for me.

Or maybe, it is just the power of open source at work. It has happened before, it is happening now. You get three open source products competing with you, and they force you to change. Apple could not alienate developers any longer (I was alienated, my team was alienated, we were all cheering for Android ;-) Just when I felt they were about to lose us for good, they got us back. It is not an open source platform (yet), but it is open enough. Let's build on it.

Another wall has crashed down. Go open source, let's keep doing it until there are no walls (hint: the next big one is open cloud).