Developers vs. Bigcorp

With all the rage recently on Twitter’s changes to their API and how it affects developers and their apps who rely on it, it’s easy to forget that Twitter is hardly the first major tech company to take such an approach to lifeblood of its ecosystem.

Yes, most of the large tech companies today are taking a hardline approach when dealing with developers who use their platform, treating them with entitlement as they hand down “our-way-or-the-highway” rules and regulations that leave little recourse when things go wrong.

From Apple’s notorious appstore approval process, to Microsoft abandoning core technologies they’ve been selling developers on for years, to Google’s insistence of providing no direct contact points for developers – the sign on the wall is clear: developers are just another cog in the machine, replaceable and interchangeable and without any provisions once things go wrong.

And yet, developers are the lifeblood of those companies, and are the main reason they became big in the first place. Without developers building apps for the iPhone or software for windows, or extending the Twitter platform in a myriad of ways – would Apple, Twitter and Microsoft be where they are today? the answer is an emphatic no.

Google is in a somewhat different position, as their main revenue channel (adsense) is not being supported (directly) by developers using their API, but as they spread to new markets (mobile, for example) they will become more and more reliant on a developer community fueling their effort.

BigCorps hold all the power

The reason this situation can exist at all, lies in the balance of power between tech companies and the developers who build for it. As individuals, developers have very little effect on the ecosystem as a whole. They have practically zero leverage when things go wrong, as Bigcorp cares about scale and numbers and not individual slip ups that do not affect the big picture.

While developers create a ton of value, they are a collection of separate individual entities who alone cannot influence a much larger system. I hereby suggest a new approach that has been used to great effect by members of older professions: organizing a union.

Union: Strength in numbers

A labor union is an organization of workers who have banded together to achieve common goals such as protecting the integrity of its trade, achieving higher pay, increasing the number of employees an employer hires, and better working conditions.

Most established professions have labor unions in developed countries. Unions prevent large entities (companies, governments) from dominating a one-sided relationship with individual (or small) entities, dictating terms and abusing their position.

While developers have no leverage as individuals, as a collection the balance of power reverses. Lets go over an hypothetical example:

Apple declines an app from its appstore, citing a technicality which is enforced inconsistently and without much detail on how to fix it. A developer who has spent 6 months working on it and personal funds to design and market it, appeals to the developer union for help. In response, the union instructs its members to suspend all in-app purchases for a day. For each infraction, Apple loses millions of dollars on IAP commissions.

Now, it’s suddenly viable for Apple to hire more (and better) reviewers and to actually provide meaningful feedback in appstore reviews – maybe even start an active dialog before declining a submission outright. This requires more resources from Apple, but if the alternative is millions lost per infraction, they are forced to accommodate the people who enable their ecosystem.

(Naturally, for this to work, union members have to comply and act as a single entity. Lets assume they do for the purpose of this post)

One can only dream

This post is more hypothetical than practical – I don’t really see a software developer union happening, unless something changes radically. One of the greatest software development moves has been the healthcare platforms like the salesforce health cloud which is very useful in the field.  We are inherently spoiled bunch, with our profession being more in demand than ever before and it’s hard for us to imagine our favorite tech company disowning us while we are living comfortably in their ecosystem.

I would like to see some community leaders ban together and try to apply some leverage against the offending tech companies once in a while. Here’s to hoping that the 21st century Jimmy Hoffa Cesar Chavez will be a developer.

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  • Gary Bortosky

    To what core Microsoft technologies do you refer?

  • DD

    Google is not different. It gets the majority of their revenue through the AdWords API.
    And it has a very strict T+C

  • Michael Hamill

    Bold but I disagree, Unions are expensive and take longer to decide something than Apple! Developers, and the Technology industry has gotten big quickly by being nimble.
    If you don’t like someone’s ecosystem, use what they give you (to make/while making) a new one that is free of their oppressive behaviour. Until then go and tend your allotment at least you can still eat what it produces.

  • Eran Galperin

    Windows 8 will replace most of the currently used development paradigms for Windows. There’s a big developer outrage over that.

  • Eran Galperin

    Unions shouldn’t have to take long to decide if they have proper protocol. And Apple is not nimble, I’m not sure where you got that idea. I think it is more bold to suggest that every developer has the capacity to create an ecosystem that compares to those that Apple, Twitter, Microsoft and Google created. For most, that is simply not an option.

    I really hate the approach of “take they give you and shut up or move out”. If it were really that easy and people could make money doing whatever they wanted, those companies wouldn’t be in the strong position that they are in.

  • Eran Galperin

    Yes, but that is direct usage for self purposes as opposed to the other platforms where developers use the API to create new products that sustain the ecosystem. In that respect Google is less dependent than other companies on developer support.

  • Desinle

    I do not see the Union thing happening..its very hard to convince developers to agree on a single entity.. for starters, let us design a website for the union.. ruby on rails / django / etc… the unions ends here, right at the start of making a website..

  • dr_doom

    God no!!! I cannot imagine anything worse.

    That would be the nail in the coffin for tech.

  • Michael Hamill

    Well yes they should take their time. Rash decision help nobody.

    The developers strength being in the mind not in the ecosystem on which he sells his latest creation. They can take skills where ever they go. The walls of the garden are but smoke and mirrors. There are hills and mountains beyond but there are well trodden paths over them to new gardens.

  • Eran Galperin

    What I mean by proper protocol – is that certain known problems (like inconsistent appstore rejections with no due process) will have a standard reaction from the union. That doesn’t require a lot of time for each incident. This is how unions work.

  • Eran Galperin

    Yeah, I’m under no illusion this will happen, just suggesting a possible alternative to the current situation where developers are powerless against the powers that be. I don’t think though that deciding what language to use for the website is the problem though…

  • Eran Galperin

    What coffin would that be? the tech industry is one of the largest and fastest growing. You can’t imagine anything worse than developers having more leverage against the companies that control their fates? are you an employee of one of those companies by any chance?

  • Mat Schulte

    what’s that awesome font you’re using for your section headers?

  • Eran Galperin

    It’s ‘Average’ from the Google web fonts library.

  • anonymous 1337

    being a developer myself, i disagree. the way unions are organized nowadays, and the way they operate are mafia methods. For example we recently had a strike over here because the union wanted to have people who are not in the union earn less then members in the union (no kidding).

    We should not take unions as an ideal to follow.

    Websites like twitter live and strive from the applications build in and around it – if you get fucked by someone running it, for example by drastic api changes, stop supporting him, change the platform and support his competition. thats the only way you will be able to move something.

  • Eran Galperin

    Not every union is a mafia – in some markets it’s an inherent part of the system. Take professional sports for example, the NBA, the NFL, the only they can operate successfully is thanks to the collective bargaining agreement they have using their unions.

    The thing is that one developer abandoning the platform will not make a dent. Right now it’s every developer for himself – as long as you’re not affected, you’re not going to do anything about it. I don’t believe a developer union will actually happen, but it’s a concept to think about as we see the ecosystems we help build treat us at a whim.