This has been on my mind since the Java Mobile & Embedded Developer Days, which was going on at the same time as a Blu-Ray Disc Java (BD-J) event over in Barcelona. The parallel between the two is the existence of a frustrated group of developers, chafing at the restrictions on developing and deploying for the mobile and Blu-Ray platforms.
What kind of crystallizes it is a pair of messages on the Blu-Ray forum over on java.net, which I noticed on the day job. For background, consider this explanation from Sun’s Bill Foote about why the Blu-Ray culture is so different:
This is a really important thing to understand. The media industry,
and especially the optical disc/Hollywood/movie industry, is not the
same thing as the IT industry. Indeed, in many ways, they’re light-years
In terms of business culture, I personally think that the two will meet
somewhere in the middle. We’re already a whole bunch more open with
BD-J than was ever the case for legacy DVD, for example, but folks
coming from the IT or other more computer-science-y pursuits will
find some culture shocks along the way, too.
Unsurprisingly, most developers who’ve ever touched the web, or even the desktop, expect a high level of autonomy and freedom, something that they’re surprised to find absent on these private, committee-crafted platforms. Consider Bill Shepp’s BD-J forum message a few days later, in reply to a wide-eyed “everything should just be free and open” type plea:
Many of us agree, but for better or for worse some of the BDA Director companies take a far more cautious approach to the platform. We’re working to find a good compromise that makes developer information accessible to those with a bona fide interest without lowering the bar so far that tire-kickers clog up the system…
That spawned a quick counter from Endre StÃ¸lsvik:
When did tire-kickers become a problem, I have to ask? Have anyone of
the BDA Director companies that have this opinion had a look at the open
source scene at all? Tire-kickers are often the ones that start new
stuff. If something starts, and it is good, others will chip in, and
soon enough you will have a really good thing going. Stupid stuff, or
really bad stuff, dies all by itself.
Unsurprisingly, I think Endre’s right. But there’s more to it than that.
I don’t think it matters.
Here’s the key premise: the idea of reaching out to developers is to get a high quantity and quality of apps on your platform, preferably innovative apps that will give your platform a unique appeal.
Now, does Blu-Ray really need that? For all the shirt-puffing expounding about amazing next-generation features that you might find in the format’s PR and white papers, the fact is that very few customers are going to be motivated by a message about the “potential” for “innovation” in the format. For every one person who’s inspired by the cool BD-J apps that might come out some day, another 99,999 just want to know which high-def format has Harry Potter and The Little Mermaid.
Even with the format war seemingly won, it’s not like Blu-Ray couldn’t use a little help convincing people it’s better than sticking with DVDs (or just waiting for HD digital downloads). At the MEDDs, the presenter for Blu-Ray was surprisingly candid in admitting that most Blu-Ray titles right now use the simpler HDMV mode for authoring their interactive features than BD-J. Worse, she showed off a demo. Two years into Blu-Ray’s general availability, the BD-J apps are not amazing internet enhanced media experiences, but trite arcade games. The demo consisted of the menuing for War (yawn) and a 2D Surf’s Up pinball game that might not pass muster with the superior Flash-based games on the Candystand site. I can’t imagine the salespeople at Fry’s are going to move a lot of Blu-Ray players with that as their essential feature.
But like I said, I don’t think it matters. Whatever the potential of BD-J, the trade association behind it has a narrow view of what they want to do with the technology, so even if it might be well suited for educational video, commercial uses (industrial training, direct marketing), etc., it’s fated not to be used that way. Apparently, the BDA thinks it will make all the money it needs by selling us our favorite movies again. And they may be right.
But that makes the outreach to developers at these Java conference so strange. The message is like “get excited about Blu-Ray… but no, you can’t have an SDK.” With only a handful of studios putting out Blu-Ray discs, and many of them using HDMV, there can’t be that great a need for BD-J developers. Or, more accurately, there can’t be that many positions total… even though there might be high demand for those few positions, assuming Java-savvy media programmers for resource-constrained environments are a rare find.
It gets weirder. The MEDDs closed with a “fish bowl session”, a panel discussion seeded with a few speakers, who then give up their seats to audience members who want to chime in. After the discussion was fixated solely on the topic of mobile “fragmentation” — incompatibilities between devices supposedly implementing the same standards — I joined in to say that that was just one of many barriers to developers in the field. Having to partner with carriers to get your apps signed, or having them completely disabled to third parties, was extremely uninviting, and with so many other things they could be doing on the web with Ajax and Flash, or on the desktop, there might not be a lot of appeal for developers to put up with this. As an afterthought, I tossed in something like “even BD-J makes it hard for outsiders to get in, and they haven’t sabotaged themselves with incompatibilities.” To which former JCP chair Ohno Klut came in to correct me… not to say that getting in was impossible, but that BD-J was also badly fragmented by incompatibilities between players. In other words: it’s not as bad as you say, Chris, it’s worse.
Whatever the state of BD-J, the idea of actively evangelizing a closed platform seems curiously pointless. You don’t see Apple evangelizing Nano/Classic iPod games to developers, since the SDKs are exposed only to a very small group of partners, quite probably solicited by Apple from among the top game developers (EA, Namco, Harmonix, Sega, etc.). There’s no intention to let Bob or Mary write an iPod game in the basement, and thus, no overt effort to recruit them to do so.
Of course, that brings up the issue of the iPhone SDK, expected to be released in February. I’m interested to understand what Apple gets out of this. The simple model is something like “you submit your app to Apple, they sell it on the iTunes store, and you get 25%.” Mmmmmaybe. But I wonder if the long game isn’t really meant to move the device itself, not third-party software. I can imagine a lot of large businesses being very interested in custom iPhone applications. Think of the pad the UPS guy has you sign for your package, which tracks both the package ID and the physical location of the signer. If the iPhone SDK gives you access to the camera (to read barcodes) and the location technologies, you could develop a similar app without having to spend millions developing and manufacturing your own devices, like UPS did.
And a business that can develop its own custom apps would then be in a position to make a bulk purchase of iPhones. So, whatever you thought Apple’s cut of your iTunes-marketed app was, I’ll bet their margin on a couple thousand iPhones would blow it away.
We’ll see what the iPhone SDK looks like, but I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t think Apple’s making a charitable offering to the wild mob of developers; I think they want to use those developers to move more product, maybe by fostering innovation and buzz, but just as likely by being amenable to corporate apps that drive bulk purchases. Blu-Ray doesn’t seem to have similar motivations — or prospects, frankly — and is perfectly happy to coast on the appeal of its movie content, not its interactivity.
And it should work out for them pretty well. But why they feel the need to bring the dog and pony show to Java developer events, I just do not get.