Xcode 4

So today, out of nowhere, Xcode 4 finally landed as an official release. After seemingly forever in beta, and me quipping more than once about it’s similarity to Duke Nukem Forever, Apple finally pulled the trigger and released it. But something changed.

Xcode now has a price. And that has left me, as both a Mac user and a Mac developer, with a lot of questions.

It’s either $4.99 if you’re not a registered, paid Apple developer, or free if you are a registered, paid Apple developer (with all its $99 per year price tag glory). Supposedly there’s some crazy accounting reason that they have to charge for it. This, of course, leaves open the possibility that Xcode will soon be free again once OS X 10.7 arrives. But, it also leaves open the possibility that Xcode will no longer be distributed with OS X and will always have a price tag. It may not even stay $4.99. It may be $49.99 or $499.99.

There are additional questions, too. Does this mean that Apple is still distributing Xcode as a bundle with GNU GCC? Because there are things (such as MacPorts) that rely on the underlying foundation provided by the developer bundle that don’t actually use Xcode. Before, those were completely free. Now, they cost $4.99 unless they have split the underlying compiler from the IDE. And if they are still distributing it with GCC, that leads to all kinds of crazy interesting licensing questions.

But I think the worst part is that there is now a barrier to entry, however low, to being a developer on a platform that is already a minority in market share. I can’t understand how Apple potentially believes that it is good and right to trade short term profits for long term growth in the number of potential developers. For the future of the Mac platform, I sure hope this isn’t their line of reasoning.

So, let me tell you a little story.

My first dabbling in programming came courtesy of QuickBASIC back in the MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 days. This was the late 80s or early 90s, so I would have been 10 or 11 at the time. I stumbled across the Qbasic environment included with MS-DOS by accident and found Nibbles. And, after playing it, I discovered that I could change things by making changes to the strange text presented on the screen. I could change colors and speeds. But it would be a couple of years before I really understood what I was doing.

When Windows 95 came out (and along with it, Visual Basic 4), I talked my parents into getting me a copy. I don’t remember how much it cost but it was probably a lot because it was one of the few Christmas presents I got that year. But boy did I run with it. I’ve periodically felt guilty over that expense because I didn’t actually make anything really useful with it, but it was instrumental in furthering my education. Now I could do things on my computer far beyond what poor ol’ Qbasic was capable of. So I wrote lots of silly little programs. I put together a “family newsletter” one year that was installed and ran as a piece of software. I was pretty proud of that. I even wrote some software for my high school as part of a software development and AP Computer Science courses.

Eventually, I would move on to other things. Other versions of Visual Basic, Java, C, a brief foray into LISP and Forth-based languages for programming MUDs, and eventually web programming. First in Perl, then in PHP. I even landed my first paying programming job while still in high school, writing applications for a local transit contractor. At first, these were Visual Basic applications. But by the time I left (August of 2000) everything was going to the web and so were we.

But I can trace everything - my entire career, and my consuming passion for software engineering - back to Qbasic and Nibbles. A silly little game about a block snake, and a free development environment included with the operating system. Had I not stumbled on Qbasic and Nibbles, there’s a chance I would never have been a developer.

This is not about $4.99. I spend more on coffee in a week than that. My worry is about that 11 year old kid out there somewhere who may never get the opportunity to stumble across Xcode or the sample applications in /Developer and realize the raw power they possess. This is an area where Apple, a company with billions in cash on hand, should be happy to show a loss. It would be to the benefit of their platform, both now and in the future.

One of the great benefits of the Mac platform has been it’s low barriers of entry to developers. Sure, one could argue that the hardware is more expensive (and I could counter-argue that, for the quality of the equipment you are getting a bargain), but the development tools have always been freely available online and included with the machine. You could dabble in programming to your heart’s content. Sure, if you want to put something in the app store(s), you had to pay for admission, but there was nothing stopping you from getting all the way to that point, or even distributing your creations on your own.

But this new trend of charging for the development tools - even if it is a paltry sum - sends, to me, a worrying signal about the course Apple intends to tread. They’ve now moved the gate from the last step to the first step. It’s a course that Microsoft, as above, once tread.

Microsoft? They now give away a version of Visual Studio for free.

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