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When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in his January 9, 2007, keynote address, he called it “a widescreen iPod, mobile phone, and Internet communicator.” And it was. Later in the speech, he explained that it ran a version of Mac OS X, designed for “desktop-class applications.” And it did—but the iPhone only used the applications that Apple chose to build into its firmware. Developers could only write apps to run in the
Web browser, or be installed on hacked, or jailbroken, iPhones.
But on March 6, Apple announced the beginning of the iPhone Developer Program, which includes a software development kit (SDK). And in June 2008, Apple unveiled iPhone 2.0, a software update featuring the App Store, which will make adding new programs wirelessly to an iPhone as easy as buying a song on iTunes. Now the iPhone can start to blur the lines between smartphone and handheld Mac. And just like your Mac, your iPhone can be a game system. A way to keep in touch via voice, text, mail, and now chat. And, after addressing the needs of enterprise customers with the 2.0 update, an indispensable work buddy.
While the true potential of iPhone 2.0 may not be evident until the update is released this June—when the App Store will open its virtual doors and third-party applications will be able to take advantage of the iPhone’s power and capabilities—we got a glimpse of what’s to come by talking to the software engineers the SDK is written for. Will the iPhone become a true computing platform, like notebooks and desktops? It could. And that means Apple is about to change everything—again.
The SDK: Apple Giveth, and the Apple Taketh Away
With the iPhone SDK, Apple has finally given wannabe iPhone developers the very thing they’ve wished for—well, almost.
When Apple honchos Steve Jobs, Phil Schiller, and Scott Forstall took the stage in Cupertino for the company’s iPhone Software Roadmap presentation, it wasn’t exactly Mao, Nixon, and Kissinger announcing the opening of China to the West. The March 6 presentation was, nevertheless, a highly anticipated event in the ongoing story of Apple’s latest and perhaps most revolutionary creation.
The iPhone made an immediate impact on mobile communications, grabbing 20 percent of the smartphone market in less than a year, but users and software developers alike immediately clamored for more. Applications that could be loaded onto the phone to personalize it and extend its functionality would be necessary to ensure the gadget’s place in the Hall of Coolest Inventions Ever. The company’s initial position, however, was that third-party applications could run within the Safari browser only. That, combined with the phone’s exclusive service and distribution agreements, did little to dispel the public perception of Apple as a secretive, inscrutable force determined to control the use of its invention.
Farhad Manjoo, author of the Machinist blog on salon.com, was an early critic of the iPhone’s buttoned-up aspect, writing last June, “What you have is a brand-new kind of machine, a fully functional general-purpose computer in your pocket. But because Apple has (so far) prohibited third-party development on the phone, it’s a stunted general-purpose computer, one that depends on a single, specific company for its every innovation.”
This presaged a frantic quest by outside programmers to jailbreak the iPhone, both to use it with cellular providers other than AT&T and to install native applications. Within weeks of its public release, the AT&T SIM lock had been hacked and the phone could then theoretically be used to make calls on other cellular networks. According to Apple COO Tim Cook, as reported in an article on TMCnet in October, more than 250,000 of the 1.4 million iPhones sold up to that point had never been activated for service with AT&T. Then, through an exploit in the phone’s Safari browser, by fall 2007, users were able to download Installer.app to get third-party applications onto the device.
But jailbreaking your iPhone is risky. Even intrepid early adopters worried about bricking their phones, since installing any of Apple’s subsequent firmware updates could turn a hacked iPhone into a shiny, warranty-voided, overpriced paperweight. It was clear something had to give.
Was the SDK something Apple had planned all along, once the installed base had grown and any security or performance issues had been ironed out? Or was the announcement a response to the firestorm of hacking and criticism? Apple won’t say, but when asked in the event’s Q&A session whether this meant the company had changed its mind, Jobs responded, “We change our minds a lot. The Web apps have worked well, but developers wanted to do more. And we heard that.”
In an interview after the SDK launch, Manjoo said, “I think it will be a huge thing now that other companies can make iPhone versions of their programs available.” Merely permitting outside application development for the iPhone doesn’t promise the development community clear skies and smooth sailing, however.
Despite a round of impressive application demos at the launch event and general agreement that the roadmap moves the iPhone in the right direction, Apple’s still the ultimate gatekeeper, of both the still-in-beta official developer program and, eventually, of what applications are offered for sale in the App Store, aka The Only Legal iPhone App Store, Period.
Developers wishing to pique the interests of iPhone users must pay Apple a $99 fee for an official iPhone developer digital certificate, and Apple must approve their finished creations before they can be offered in the App Store, an iTunes- like application on the iPhone’s home screen that markets, sells, and distributes iPhone apps.