Does user experience or developer experience drive platforms?

A few things I’ve read lately state or imply that developer experience is what drives platforms.  Paul Graham says: “If programmers used some other device for mobile web access, they’d start to develop apps for that instead [of iPhone].”  Dharmesh Shah says explicitly: “What drives these technology cycles [thin client, thick client] as much as user experience is the developer experience.”

I disagree.  I think user experience drives platforms.

A software platform is a bipartite network of developers and users, with classic bipartite network effects:  Developers want their apps to have the most users possible; users want the platform with the most/best apps.  In many (all?) such networks, one side dominates and controls the network; the other side follows them and often pays all the costs of the matchmaking.  Sellers go where the buyers are.  Companies spend tens of thousands of dollars per hire to get the best candidates.  Men go to the bar or dating site with the most interesting women.

I’m not sure what determines which side of a network will dominate.  It doesn’t seem to be based on which direction the money is flowing (or whether there’s money involved at all).  I suspect it’s based on how many matches each side is looking to make, and how fungible they consider the other side to be.  In commerce, in particular, each buyer is looking to buy one or maybe two cars, let’s say, and the decision matters a lot to him, whereas each dealer is looking to sell many cars, and doesn’t care so much whom he sells to—all dollars are the same.

In software, I think users dominate the network.  Software is primarily an industry; every company has to calculate the ROI of development effort against each platform, and will ultimately choose the platform that gives them the most customers or users.  Even hobbyists are motivated by attention and appreciation; they may not care about making money, but they want their software to be used and liked.  Thus the same bipartite network effects are in play.  (Those who are creating software purely as a personal project are a small minority, isolated by definition, and don’t drive the market.)

So users will go to the platform that has the best user experience, and developers will follow.  Otherwise, why have so many applications been written for Windows?  Most software engineers prefer the Unix development environment.  But Unix, written by and for software professionals, dominates only in the server market, where the users are technical people—developers and admins.  (Graham claims that “Our horror at that prospect [of developing for Windows] was the single biggest thing that drove us to start building web apps.”  But I find it hard to believe that this was the primary driver, rather than free distribution, rapid iteration, and all the other benefits of apps in the cloud.)

Apple’s platform strategy with the iPhone was exact:  First, build a large user base without relying on third-party apps—just by building a better phone. Then, once it’s the hottest device on the market, open the platform to developers.  Now, by writing for one device, developers are on a platform getting 100 million downloads a month, several times the rate on other platforms.  The consequence is that as much as developers hate the App Store and its review process, they will continue to develop for iPhone until another platform gives them the same ROI.

The only hope for Android or any other platform is to appeal not to developers, but to users.  Like the downtown bar that offers ladies’-night specials in order to attract the men, attract the users and the developers will follow.

  • JackDoitCrawford

    Interesting essay, Jason. I think that if no one comes up with a better “mousetrap” than the users use what they know and choose from what is available. But with something new being developed, the users might decide to change. Consider the portable GPS. Now that this app can be put on a smart phone, won’t the users go to that and stop buying the standalone GPS? CD’s were all the rage in the 1990’s but with MP3, they don’t sell so well.
    Maybe this isn’t really in the same vein as you are thinking, but I thought it was at least a parallel case.

  • http://twitter.com/jomtwi Jouni Miettunen

    Maybe it's me or Europe, but I choose platform over users. Been freeware coder 15+ years, just like to do stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/joe_kim Joseph Kim

    I had such a bad experience with Windows and Symbian programming that I would not develop for those platforms again unless major improvements were made regardless of how many users there are. Personally, I was drawn to iPhone not because of the users but because of the slick interfaces that could be built versus the competing platforms. Graham's argument resonates with me as a developer more. I think you underestimate how much developers are motivated by building stuff they are personally passionate about versus profit-motive/user adoption.

  • http://jasoncrawford.org jasoncrawford

    Joe, Jouni, I'm sure there are plenty of devs who just follow their own interests, including in choice of platform. What I'm saying is that they're a minority and don't drive the market.

    • http://twitter.com/joe_kim Joseph Kim

      You know what mobile development was like before the iPhone. The mobile development process was absurdly stifling. Very little applications were written or used. Developers flocked to the iPhone even before they had many users. Symbian smart phones are still a market leader, yet they posses much less developer mindshare. The app store for all its warts has netted 100k applications written by developers. The apps create enormous value for users and are driving the future of the mobile market.

      Developers sense the value of technology early on, build the solutions and the users come around later.

      • http://jasoncrawford.org jasoncrawford

        “Developers flocked to the iPhone even before they had many users.” Is that true? The iPhone SDK wasn't released until the iPhone had been out for almost a year; weren't there millions of iPhones + iPod Touches out there?

        “Symbian smart phones are still a market leader.” Are they a leader in the US? I thought they were mostly in Europe and Japan.

  • http://www.seancast.com/ Sean Saulsbury

    Seems like an odd dichotomy to me… Perhaps I'm missing or don't understand something here. Wouldn't that mean that nobody would develop for Mac apps, in favor of Windows?

    I tend to think you need both and it's more about the harmony between these two worlds than anything. Don't developers *create* the user experience? So if the developer experience breeds better user experiences in general, that platform has a definite advantage. Developers that create awesome content will breed larger user bases. It's a virtuous circle.

    Even then, that's not the whole picture. I think return on investment is the key issue here. Potential customers (i.e., audience) is a huge factor, but operating expenses (i.e., developer experience) is still an important part of the picture. ROI will dictate what gets developed and on which platform(s).

    • http://jasoncrawford.org jasoncrawford

      First, this is about dominant trends; there will always be exceptions.

      Re Mac and Windows: Look what happened in the '90s. The Mac had a lot of good apps, but they tended to be in certain categories, such as printing, publishing, graphic design. Again, bipartite network effects at work: designers got Macs because that platform had the best design apps; software developers who wrote design apps did them for Mac because that's where the users were–exactly the virtuous circle you're talking about. Now, getting that *started* required Mac to be the best platform for such apps–which it was, because of its innovative GUI–but once started, it was self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing. And once that advantage is in place, it's hard to overcome. This is the pattern of all network effects.

  • http://jasoncrawford.org jasoncrawford

    “Developers flocked to the iPhone even before they had many users.” Is that true? The iPhone SDK wasn't released until the iPhone had been out for almost a year; weren't there millions of iPhones + iPod Touches out there?

    “Symbian smart phones are still a market leader.” Are they a leader in the US? I thought they were mostly in Europe and Japan.