New Developments For the iPhone
Yesterday, Apple announced two major new initiatives for the iPhone--a series of upcoming software updates that should make it far more palatable for business use, and a software development kit (SDK) that will let independent programmers write their own applications for Apple's iconic phone (along with the iPod Touch).
The new "enterprise" features, such as the ability to set up and erase an iPhone remotely and synchronize an iPhone's e-mail, calendars and contacts list with a Microsoft Exchange server, may get IT types all hot and bothered. But they're not what I deal with in my role as personal-tech columnist, outside of their ability to speed the iPhone's adoption in the market at large. Instead, I'd rather talk about the SDK.
This is an important step, because until now the only way to get third-party software on an iPhone was to "jailbreak" it with an unauthorized hack like the Installer.app utility that I tested last summer. Apple had been able to defeat these hacks temporarily with each new iPhone software update, but it was fighting a losing battle--it had to find a way to welcome the creativity of other developers.
To judge from the coverage of Apple's presentation in Cupertino, Calif., yesterday, the company has done so with relatively few restrictions... in the context of the phone business. Third-party programmers will be able to access almost every feature of the iPhone, including the nifty internal sensors that allow the iPhone to know if it's being held horizontally or vertically. (For example, you could "fly" a spaceplane by moving the entire iPhone around like a Wii controller.)
But they will only be able to distribute their software to users through a new App Store run by Apple that won't accept certain categories of programs: "porn, privacy-breaching tools, bandwidth-hogging apps, and anything illegal as an example of the restrictions," as Macworld summarized. For example, Internet-phone-call programs can only run over WiFi, not the iPhone's EDGE over-the-air signal, and programs to unlock the iPhone's SIM card will be completely verboten.
Apple will charge a 30 percent commission for software sold through the App Store--but if developers offer a program for free, that commission will be zero.
Mac developers appear optimistic overall--see, for instance, John Gruber's analysis of the announcement--but there are some issues with Apple's deal for developers. TechCrunch's day-after musings note one of the odder limits on iPhone programming--the lack of multitasking outlined in Apple's developer guidelines:
Only one iPhone application can run at a time, and third-party applications never run in the background. This means that when users switch to another application, answer the phone, or check their email, the application they were using quits.
This is a strange restriction. Even Palm OS phones allow limited background activity--you can keep playing music while you do other things--and Microsoft's Windows Mobile software allows genuine multitasking. Google's Android software will too (when I visited the company's campus in January and asked Android director Andy Rubin where he thought other mobile-phone software fell short, he specifically cited multitasking, saying that phones did a poor job of allowing background applications to get your attention politely).
We'll just have to wait to see what kind of software developers can come up with--the App Store isn't open yet, and you'll apparently need a software update for your iPhone to enable it. In the meantime: What programs--or what kind of programs--do you want to see ship first?
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