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Overthrowing Apple: The Web Leads To Freedom

Digital Chocolate CEO Trip Hawkins urges developer-serfs to cast off their chains.

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There's not much doubt that mobile gaming, like mobile computing in general, represents a major market opportunity. What's less certain is whether emerging companies will be able to take advantage of the opportunity if they're effectively serfs on someone else's platform.

At VentureBeat's MobileBeat/GamesBeat conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, game industry veteran Trip Hawkins, CEO of Digital Chocolate, was asked whether he agreed with former colleague Bing Gordon's assertion that we're in a golden age of gaming.

Hawkins said he thought the golden age of gaming occurred when the personal computer revolution began in the 1980s. Back in the floppy disk era, he said, "it was an open free platform and we could make whatever we wanted to make."

Hawkins pointed to Nintendo as the company that had changed things, with its software licensing agreement. Nowadays, such agreements are the norm; developers are bound by legal shackles and must surrender revenue and rights to platform owners.

"We've been basically in a feudal dark age, " he lamented. "You don't own the land that you're tilling. This is a big issue."

The feudal lords, as Hawkins sees it, are the platform owners: Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, among others. And the platform owners are at war.

"There's no question there's a war going on," said Hawkins. "There's a war for the hearts and minds of developers."

Google is somewhere in the mix too, though its position is more ambiguous. It is the master of Android, even if Android's patent situation suggests that Microsoft is the power behind the throne. But Hawkins contends Android matters to Google mainly as way to reduce Apple's share of the mobile market.

What Google really wants, Hawkins said, is for more devices to have a good browser. In this, Google and Facebook, so often mentioned as enemies, share a common interest, he suggested, noting that both Google and Facebook are browser companies.

The browser, Hawkins suggested, represents the path to freedom, to owning your own dirt, as he put it.

Does that matter to the typically developer? Probably not. Apple didn't force developers to fill its App Store with hundreds of thousands of apps; developers accept Apple's terms and submit their apps mostly without protest. Freedom isn't as important as revenue to most developers. Likewise, developers continue to create games for other restricted platforms.

But Hawkins is thinking long-term. He's thinking of shareholder value rather than a check from Apple that pays the rent. After rattling off great companies that have been created on the Web like Amazon, eBay, and Google, he asked, "How many great software companies arose on the back of Nintendo? I don't think there is one."

How many great companies arose on the back of Apple and the iTunes App Store? There's no answer to that question yet. Rovio might qualify one day, but Angry Birds does not a lasting empire make.

Discussion moderator Dean Takahashi proposed Zynga as a company that has thrived on someone else's--Facebook's--platform. But Hawkins responded that Zynga is the exception that proves the rule. "Zynga took advantage of a mistake Facebook made," he said, pointing to the Facebook policy change that ended social wall spam, the means by which Zynga marketed itself to mass adoption, freedom, and an IPO.

Yet, Hawkin's platform of choice, the Web, still lags behind native platforms in some critical areas.

Earlier in the day, Sayeed Choudhury, director of product management for Web technologies at Qualcomm, told conference attendees that even as the performance gap between Web apps and native apps has narrowed, often to the point of not mattering, there are still reasons to build native apps. He said that the workflow and development tools for open Web apps are not nearly as powerful as native development tools, a situation he characterized as a significant opportunity.

Keith Rabois, COO of mobile payment company Square, in a separate interview, also expressed skepticism about whether HTML5 development was ready to replace native app development on mobile devices.

"If you care about apps that are pixel perfect, that's almost impossible to deliver with Web app," he said, noting that it had taken Square only two weeks to develop a Web app to register for Square's payment service, but it took something like six more weeks to resolve issues of polish and performance.

Hawkins' interview concluded with an exhortation to developers to "try to find a path to freedom." Following that path in the direction of Web apps, however, will take you over some rough terrain, at least until HTML5 development tools make the journey a bit easier.

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