Why WWDC is totally terrifying for indie developers

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Apple's product events always make Josh Michaels nervous. He's never sure if he'll still be in business at the end.
Apple's product events always make Josh Michaels nervous. He's never sure if he'll still be in business at the end.
Photo: Leander Kahney

SAN FRANCISCO — If you watched the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote earlier this week, you’d think it was a big love fest. But there’s a section of the audience sitting there in a cold, cold sweat.

Attendees are mostly software developers, and some of them are very nervous that Apple will announce something that will ruin their business overnight.

“The WWDC keynote is terrifying for developers,” said Josh Michaels, an independent software developer from Portland, Oregon, who runs Jetson Creative. “The uncertainty is the worst part.”

Take ReplayKit in iOS 9, a new feature that records games and app videos without the need for any external cameras or hardware.

Sounds great, unless you are Everyplay or Kamkord, a pair of young companies that raised millions of dollars to record games and app videos in iOS.

“They’re f**ked!” said a game developer at WWDC who asked not to be named.

The Apple ecosystem has become one of the biggest markets for software on the planet. 100 billion apps have been downloaded and $30 billion paid to developers, Apple just announced. That’s a lot of livelihoods on the line every time Tim Cook and his colleagues take the stage to show off Apple’s latest software and hardware plans.

After this year’s WWDC keynote, Kamkord said it was “very excited” about ReplayKit, but the developer Cult of Mac spoke with about the subject was skeptical.

“They always say this is market validation for them, but they have to say that,” said the dev. “It’s definitely not good.”

Rare peeks at Apple’s plans

Because Apple is so secretive, no one knows what it has up its sleeves. That’s why Apple keynotes, which show how company’s ecosystem will be tweaked in the near future, are so nerve-wracking for developers.

“The uncertainty is the worst part,” said Michaels. “The thing is, you don’t know. If 100 percent of your income comes from this store, and you don’t know, the level of anxiety is really high. There’s genuinely PTSD among developers.”

Another developer said they were always nervous during Apple’s announcements. “We have a love/hate relationship with Apple,” he said. “Mostly hate, but it’s how we make our living.”

In some cases, it’s a new product that competes directly with something on the market: Think the iPhone and Research in Motion, or the Apple Watch and Jawbone or Fitbit.

Apple fans love to make fun of this, joking that this company or another got “Sherlocked” — a phrase named after some software called Sherlock that was made instantly irrelevant when Apple added similar functionality to OS X.

But there are a lot of independent developers out there, and it’s not funny for small shops that rely on Apple for their business.

It can also be new features in OS X or iOS, or a change in an API — the underlying framework that a program relies on to function. Or it could be a change in Apple’s terms of service.

“You don’t know what they’re going to announce that’s going to have an impact on your business,” said Michaels, who’s seen some of his own software put in jeopardy by changes Apple has made.

“They could announce things that can help your business,” he said, “or they can announce things that can totally ruin your business.”

At AltConf this year, Michaels gave a talk, called “Deprecated Incorporated,” about what happens when Apple jeopardizes your product.

He outlined several strategies to survive abrupt changes, including watching a video from WWDC 2010 called “Future Proofing Your Application” (it can be found on this page).

But his best advice was to be nimble — think on your feet.

The classic example, he said, was Cycloramic, a clever camera app that uses the iPhone’s vibration system to rotate the phone and take 360-degree pictures. The app was originally released for the iPhone 5, which could be stood on its edge. Michaels said the developers were always worried about what would happen if Apple’s new model had rounded edges — like the iPhone 6.

They came up with the smartest solution ever.

They advised Cycloramic users to prop their phones between the prongs of the phone’s wall charger.

“That’s clever,” Michaels said.