Vote for virtualization

In this election year, there is an issue facing Macintosh developers. Ask yourself the following:

How can you develop new products for Leopard when you need to have Tiger installed for supporting your legacy applications? How easy is it to test a new feature on Mac OS X 10.4.11 when you’re running 10.5? How quickly can you reproduce a bug on 10.4.10 if you’re running 10.4.11? Can you run Xcode versions 3.0 and 3.1 at the same time from /Developer?

We all know the way to get Apple’s attention regarding our issues is to submit bugs. So now is the time to vote for virtualization. If you agree with the following, please copy and paste this bug report and submit it so that it becomes a duplicate of Bug ID# 5812840.


A Macintosh developer’s ability to produce world-class products is inhibited by the lack of desktop virtualization.

Steps to Reproduce:

  1. Create a virtual machine using VMware or Parallels on your desktop.
  2. Try to install Mac OS X on this virtual machine.

Expected Results:

You should be able to install and run any version of Mac OS X on this virtual machine as long as the host is a Macintosh.

Actual Results:

The installation does not work.


This ability has never existed, but ever since the arrival of virtual machines in Mac OS X, developers have dreamt of being able to do this.


The ability to run multiple versions of Mac OS X has many benefits for a Macintosh developer and for Apple:

  • Being able to run any version of Mac OS X in a virtual machine makes it much easier for a developer to create features for both older and newer versions of the operating system. Many developers need to support their existing applications on the current platform, while at the same time developing new applications for an upcoming version of Mac OS X. For example, developers would like to have virtual machines that would allow Tiger and Leopard to run at the same time. The benefit to Apple is that there will be many more applications available at each new OS launch because the barriers to developing on that new OS are much lower.
  • Developers constantly need to test their products on various versions of Mac OS X. If a customer reports a problem on 10.4.11 and the developer is running 10.5.2, there is a significant amount of effort required to bring up a system that allows investigation. The result is that many problems are ignored or deferred. With virtualization these barriers are removed and fixing bugs becomes much easier. The benefit to Apple is higher quality software for the Macintosh platform.
  • Apple often releases beta versions of development tools that are not compatible with older versions. One such example is the current Xcode 3.1 release—it cannot be run simultaneously with the 3.0 release. This creates a situation where a developer working on iPhone applications cannot work on their current Macintosh applications at the same time. Again, developer productivity suffers and the availability of products for both of Apple’s platforms is affected.

Virtualization is currently being made available for the Mac OS X Server product. We respectfully ask that Apple make the same features available in the desktop version of the operating system.

Update: Several people have written to inform me that you can run Xcode 3.0 and 3.1 side-by-side. While this is true, I have heard that there are some problems. We all appreciate the excellent job the developers at Apple do with Xcode and the other fine tools we work with, but there will always be growing pains as these tools advance. Virtualization would lessen the impact of change on our development environments.

More brain surgery…

Now that I’ve covered some of the technical issues with background processing for iPhone applications, let’s take a look at why it’s a bad idea from the user’s point-of-view.

Assume that Apple changes their mind about background processing tomorrow–anyone can do whatever they want in the background. All the naysayers rejoice, and in a year’s time they’ll be asking Apple to remove background processing.

Why? Same reason as always. The iPhone requires a fundamentally different approach to user interaction. Something that goes way beyond the obvious things like the multi-touch interface.

If you can have a background process running on your iPhone, what is that process going to do when it detects a state change? What happens with a buddy comes online, or a new piece of data is available, or when a long running calculation is completed?

You’re going to want to notify the user, right? Again, “desktop thinking” makes this sound like a simple thing. But it’s not.

The iPhone is going to attract network aware applications like moths to a flame. In a year’s time there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of applications using the Wi-Fi and EDGE connections. You’ll likely have several of them on your iPhone: let’s say you have five.

You now have five independent sources for notifications. How do you let the user know which one is which? One might say, “make the sound different.” Another might say, “make something flash in the status bar.” Someone else might say, “make the phone vibrate.” Or even, “put up an alert box.” A truly sick individual might say, “Do all four.”

Can you see where I’m going with this? Your phone soon becomes a fricken’ pinball machine as multiple applications fight for your attention. With 24 notification permutations for every application, things will quickly get out of hand.

The desktop has evolved several mechanisms for notification: bouncing Dock icons, bezel windows, menubar icons, and things like Growl. These mechanisms all work together because they can share a common screen without unduly overloading the user.

But on the iPhone, you have a limited area and associated mechanisms for getting the user’s attention. In effect, it creates a notification bottleneck.

This notification bottleneck forces the user to work when figuring out who needs attention. First they have to recognize the notification by sound, feel or sight (or a combination of those senses.) Then they have to navigate to the recognized application, which may not be easy given the phone’s current state. Finally they need to deal with the source of the notification. Now imagine doing all this frequently: the network will end up being a constant source of distraction.

If you’re still unconvinced, let me ask you one final question: do you want to get IM notifications while you’re making a 911 call?

Brain surgeons

Unless you’ve been stranded on a remote Pacific isle, you’re no doubt aware of the current furor over third party iPhone applications not being able to run in the background. To be blunt, I’ve never seen so many experts without a fricken’ clue. If you haven’t written code using the jailbreak tool chain, your opinions on the iPhone SDK, based entirely on what you see in a simulator, just aren’t relevant. You might as well be explaining the nuances of brain surgery.

As someone who has been involved in iPhone development for the past six months, please let me offer you a healthy dose of reality.

Twitterrific on the iPhone could definitely make use of a background process to gather new tweets. In fact, a prototype version of the software did just that. And it was a huge design failure: after doing XML queries every 5 minutes, the phone’s battery was almost dead after 4 hours. In fact, the first thing I said after giving Gruber this test version was “don’t use auto-refresh.”

The heart of the problem are the radios. Both the EDGE and Wi-Fi transceivers have significant power requirements. Whenever that hardware is on, your battery life is going to suck. My 5 minute refresh kept the hardware on and used up a lot of precious power.

(Those of you under NDA with the iPhone SDK should take a look at the documentation for Core Location. After reading about how it should be used, you’ll understand why getting your location in Maps and similar applications is only done on an “as needed” basis.)

And right about now, you’re thinking “But I’ll be smart about how I use the hardware.” Sorry, bucko, but you’re the exact reason why we don’t have background processing in the current SDK. You’re living in your own little dream world.

What happens when App A uses the network at 5 minutes past the hour, and App B uses it at 10 minutes past, and App C uses it at 15 minutes past, and so on? There’s no way for you to know what other apps are doing is there? And yet the battery is still taking a pounding.

In my opinion, such a scenario is quite likely. As a satellite device, the iPhone requires contact with other machines to do interesting things. Periodically hitting the network is the primary reason that developers want to run in the background.

Some have stated that Apple is limiting innovation. My opinion is that they are helping us from collectively shooting ourselves in the feet.

It takes several months of actual iPhone development before you eventually realize that the iPhone requires a completely different mindset. Until that happens, you’ll make assumptions based on desktop experience, and that in turn will lead to a lot of bad designs.

For what it’s worth, I think Apple will address this issue in the future. I can imagine a solution based on a plug-in (bundle) architecture that lets your application do things when the phone decides it’s a good time (not when you decide it’s a good time.) If the radios go on because you’re checking Mail, then you get a “network active” notification and a chance to run some short-lived TCP/IP connections. If you take too long, you’d get killed, much like Safari does with Javascript that runs too long.

Do I expect such a sophisticated system to be available in a beta of version 1.0? Hell no. And neither should you.

A new kind of partner

While speaking with a writer from Business Week the other day, a thought occurred to me: the App Store radically changes the quantity and quality of Apple’s partners.

With the iTunes Store, Apple has partnered with a handful of media companies for recordings and video. And those partners are deathly afraid of online distribution. Developers, on the other hand, will number in the thousands (or much more.) We also embrace online distribution wholeheartedly.

We will ask for things a media company would never even consider. Expect there to be a learning curve for both parties involved in this endeavor.

Update: Daniel Jalkut points out that we have our own fears.

Hello App Store

The big day has come and passed. And you know what? We’re still in uncharted territory: for most of us Mac developers, the App Store is something new and strange.

Let’s start by looking at Apple’s cut in the deal. Is 30% reasonable?

My first impression was that it seemed a little high, but acceptable. You’re getting someone else to deal with the hassles of downloading, payment processing and, to some degree, promotion. There’s a lot of value in that. Look at what it costs to be on other plaforms, such as Xbox Live, and it seems fair.

But thinking through the situation a bit more, I realized that those things pale in comparison to the value of being associated with the Apple brand. Having their explicit stamp of approval and being included in the App Store will make any product more appealing to a customer. Buying directly from Apple means that your software won’t screw up their phone and that can be returned if it doesn’t live up to expectations. That, combined with the ease of a single click purchase, is going to drive a lot of sales. You’ll make up that 30% without even trying.

Update on March 13th, 2008: A reader, Philip Smith, wrote in with an interesting observation: how many developers have the ability to offer gift cards for their products? Traditionally, giving software as a gift has been a very hit or miss affair. But when friends and relatives can go down to the local grocery store and pick up a gift card for the App Store, that problem is solved. Yet another way to increase your sales with the help of Apple.

One thing that disappoints me about the iPhone SDK sign-up is that the entry fee of $99 is too low. I look at the entry fee as a way to filter out developers that aren’t fully committed to the platform. Unfortunately from what we’ve seen so far, including the load on on the day of the SDK release, there’s a huge amount of interest. I fear that Apple is going to be overloaded with application reviews, issuing certificates, and other administrative tasks. A higher entry fee would lessen the chance of this becoming a bottleneck for getting my product into the system. Please charge me $499 and let move to the front of the line.

Now, let’s look at how this affects our current business and way of doing things. Even though writing applications for the iPhone is now incredibly easy, selling software is much more than just writing code. My primary concerns at this point are with the details of distribution.

Take a look at our Twitterrific product: we’d love to offer both free and paid-for versions. Will that be allowed in the App Store? There’s also the traditional “try before you buy” model that we’re used to having with our desktop applications. As a customer, I’d like to know what I’m getting before I put my money down. Will the App Store allow some kind of trial period?

As Apple builds out the App Store, I hope they take the approach that they have with the iTunes Store. Let me write an application “preview” that anyone can download freely. If they like it, the buy button makes us both happy. All I need to do in order to make this happen is provide two files to Apple: one is the software equivalent of the 30 second clip, the other is the real deal.

Anyone who’s been selling online for more than one major release knows how important upgrade fees are to the continued growth of a product. It drives new features and keeps the product life cycle moving along. Yet we’ve heard nothing about how this will be handled at the App Store. Will we be able to identify existing users and offer them discounts? Keeping existing customers happy is in my best interest and that of my new partner: Apple.

Update on March 10th, 2008: Another issue that occurred to me was how we’ll be able to offer the product at varying price points. For example, NFR licenses for reviewers, free licenses for contest prizes and discounted licenses for promotions like MacSanta. Again, I hope that Apple keeps our promotional needs in mind as they implement the App Store.

There has also been no indication on how we’ll be able to handle distribution during a beta test. There’s no way I’m going to release a major product without letting a significant number of users run a private version of the application. Can we get these pre-release versions of the product onto their phones without using the App Store? Will the App Store itself provide some special beta mechanism? Will we have to run our own App Store like large enterprises? Any guidance in this regard needs to happen soon, June will be here before we know it.

This is an exciting time to be an OS X developer. I feel confident that Apple will address some of the concerns mentioned above and we’ll all be happy campers by the time the App Store launches. Now, excuse me while I open up my new Xcode project…