Opening up while retaining control
Since long before Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's famous onstage outburst (video), IT vendors have recognized that maintaining good relations with independent developers is one of the best ways to grow and strengthen a hardware or software platform. But as RIM found out last week, managing a developer program often means striking a delicate balance between providing the resources developers want and maintaining the control over a product's ecosystem that its business demands.
Establishing a developer program requires vendors to make careful decisions. For starters, what form should the program take? Should it be a licensed, subscription-based program, such as what Apple and RIM offer? Maybe the vendor could attract more developers if it took a portion of its product's code base and made it available as open source software? What tools and resources will developers need? How much documentation should be made available, and what should remain proprietary information? How much access should outside programmers have to in-house product development staff?
Marketing and product strategy are important considerations, too. While one main benefit of a developer program is to open a product to a broad range of opinions and ideas, vendors also need to control the overall direction of their products. RIM, for example, wants to maintain its image as a mobile platform for serious business users, so it discourages frivolous apps, much to the chagrin of some developers. Similarly, Apple has repeatedly come under fire for the restrictive policies of its iOS App Store, which limit everything from content to the tools developers can use to build their apps.
Developers and providers: Can we talk?
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this balancing act is keeping the lines of communication open. Marketers are the usual company mouthpieces where customers are concerned, but programmers and marketers hardly speak the same language. Indeed, while some commenters appreciated RIM's response to Murai's blog post, for example, others seemed to take it as further proof that RIM was out of touch and indifferent to their needs.