How can we know whether we can effect change from the outside?

Marco Arment thinks we can have some influence, however measured, over Apple through our writing (or podcasts or YouTube channels or other media, as the case may be); and I do think so too, but I have to wonder to which extent it is true, and as a consequence whether it is even worth keeping in mind.

The first issue is that we don’t know whether a decision was influenced by externally produced elements or not. As Marco wrote, Apple is not a waterfall dictatorship. But it is also a peculiar company, which has consistently eschewed “common wisdom” thrown at them (by the tech press in particular) for quite some time now, instead doing what they feel is best for them and for the user, and the least we can say it that it seems to have worked okay for them (so far). So by necessity Apple employees have, consciously or not, filters with which they dismiss many of these external opinions. Of course, we Apple developers are quite attuned to these filters, but on the other hand we are both users with slight delusions as to the representativity of our needs in the customer base at large, and also a party in relationship with Apple and as such are likely coming off as biased, especially on the subject of relation between Apple and third-party developers (iOS App Store policies come to mind, in particular). Paul Graham made me realize this when he wrote in Apple’s mistake:

Actually I suppose Apple has a third misconception: that all the complaints about App Store approvals are not a serious problem. They must hear developers complaining. But partners and suppliers are always complaining. It would be a bad sign if they weren’t; it would mean you were being too easy on them.

How do I convince an Apple employee, who I cannot hear, that my criticism of something does not (just) come from the inconvenience this something causes me as a developer, but comes from my belief this something causes subtle but important inconveniences for the user? I do not know. I mean, we still do not have trials on the iOS App Store after 5 years, for instance, so there has got to be some reason some of our pleas do not work.

Of course, I don’t expect an Apple representative to just go on the record telling that external opinions influenced this and that decision. Duh. But there are a variety of officious channels through which this could be hinted at. For instance, in the particular domain of Radar (Apple’s bug reporting tool) Matt Drance, formerly of DTS, gave a talk at C4 (scroll down to “Drance – How to be a Good Developer”) about your relation as a developer with Apple, in particular about Radar, giving information that I believe is not available anywhere else, and my thanks go to him for doing this talk, and to Philippe Casgrain for transcribing it and publishing his notes. As far as I know, no one who works or used to work at Apple ever talked publicly about the influence of external opinions the way Matt Drance talked about how radars are seen from the inside.

The second issue is that the tech community in general seems to be pretty quick at decreeing every Apple reaction as being the result of press coverage/public outcry/radar duplicates/etc., without any evidence (other than circumstantial) supporting that affirmation. The prime example being, of course, Apple’s eventual decision to release a SDK for the iPhone, which many developers will tell was because it had however many duplicates in Radar, while things couldn’t possibly have been that simple (personally I believe conversations over private channels between Apple and important software vendors, game developers in particular, played the main role in convincing the relevant Apple executives). Even for the example Marco gives, the replacement of Helvetica Neue Light by Helvetica Neue in current iOS 7 betas, I remain unconvinced: this could just as easily be explained by usual iteration of the design. The only instances where we can say with some credibility that Apple reacted to external influences are when they reversed their position on some app rejections (the Mark Fiore incident in particular comes to mind), and (along with some help from the FTC) when Apple renounced to their additions to Section 3.3.1. As a result it is hard to have a conversation in the tech community about what works when it comes to publishing opinions Apple employees see as valid; and since we are not going to have this conversation with Apple either, this leaves most everyone in the dark.

So as a result, I am going to keep writing my opinions here for my audience, but I am not going to pay attention to whether anyone at Apple actually could take them into account, as I do not want to worry over something of which I cannot know the outcome.