As I type these words, I am waiting for Apple’s Developer Connection web site to ease up sufficiently for me to download the long-awaited Software Developer Kit for the iPhone (and iPod touch, just by the by). In a way, I hate developer-oriented announcements — "here’s a really cool thing we’re working on, and it’s available now, and hoi polloi can have it in about six months". Actually, it’s the six months I hate.
At the launch of the iPhone (and iPod touch, just by the by) SDK this morning, Steve Jobs announced that the exclusive means by which applications for the iPhone (and iPod touch, just by the by) would be distributed — namely the aptly-titled "App Store" — would be included in a 2.0 software update that would be available in June. Which means that until then, no matter how many cool apps may exist for the iPhone (and iPod touch, just by the by), no-one can actually get them onto their nifty hardware until June.
Remembering that last year, when the iPhone was first announced, it was then months before anyone outside of a rarefied inner circle could get their hands on one. Some of us out here in the part of the world known as "Other" are still waiting for our chance to own an iPhone legitimately. There’s a lot of waiting involved with these things. (Thankfully, we have ready access to the iPod touch, just by the by.)
And some cool apps were shown off this morning. A graphics toy called Touch FX that allows you to manipulate an image on screen by swiping or pinching, then restore it by shaking the phone (or iPod touch, just by the by) like an Etch-a-Sketch. A game called Touch Fighter, in which you move the iPhone (or iPod touch, just by the by) as if piloting a toy plane, and tap the screen to fire at enemies. Another game, based on the not-yet-released Spore, from Electronic Arts. Then some serious applications — salesforce management, instant messaging (yay!) and a medications lookup database.
[UPDATE: As readers on the forum have noted, this application has practical and important purposes in some situations. Those situations weren't demonstrated in this morning's presentation, nonetheles my flippant dismissal of its utility has been edited out to avoid offense.]
And we finish up with a demo that everyone knew was coming: Super Monkey Ball. I think the time between when Steve Jobs first showed the use of the accelerometer in the iPhone and when someone said it would be a cool platform for playing Super Monkey Ball was measured in picoseconds.
All of these (except the drug one, which was just kind of weird) were intriguing applications. Applications that made you want to rush out and grab an iPhone (or an iPod touch, just by the by) and start using its nifty new capabilities.
But you can’t. Until June the only people who can play with these applications will be the people who developed them.
Which is where my sudden interest in being a registered iPhone developer comes from. I don’t have an iPhone yet (I do have an iPod touch, just by the by), but I was impressed enough by what I saw this morning that I want to try my hand at writing something. Maybe I’ll come up with something cool, maybe I’ll give up in frustration. But I’m going to give it a go.
The thing is, I have to do SOMETHING. Since the day the iPhone was announced, I have been out there proclaiming to the world that it was a computer, despite what its creator said. Back then, Jobs described his company’s core products thus: "the Mac, iPod, Apple TV, iPhone — only one of them is a computer". I reckon everything he listed is a computer, but I was stymied in my arguing the case by one simple fact: you couldn’t program an iPhone (or an iPod touch, just by the by) to do anything other than that which Apple deemed it could do. That’s not terribly computer-like.
And today, that changed. Today you can make the iPhone (and the iPod touch, just by the by) do what you want it to do. You can make it do things Steve Jobs has never imagined it might do. Today it is a computer.
If you’re a developer. If you’re not, you wait until June. I am a man of great patience in some ways, but in this I am not.
Just by the by. There were some other intriguing developments announced at this morning’s event. For one thing, Apple has licensed Microsoft’s ActiveSync protocol, so the version of Mail that runs on the iPhone is now compatible with Microsoft Exchange servers. Contacts are handed off to the phone’s Address Book, and Events and invitations are handed off to the phone’s calendar. One has to ask, then: are the Mac equivalents going to be Exchange-compatible? It seems logical, since a goodly chunk of iPhone (and iPod touch, just by the by) users are also Mac users, they’ll want to sync their data betwwen devices. Is it possible Apple will have a fully-functioning Exchange client on the Mac before Microsoft does?
Another intriguing development is the App Store. As the name suggests, this is where you go to get applications for the iPhone (and iPod touch, just by the by). It’s an application that will be installed as part of a 2.0 software update for both devices come June. As with the January 1.1.4 update, the iPhone version will be free, the iPod touch version will have "a nominal fee" — just by the by.
The App Store will function much the way the iTunes Store does — browse the available applications, find something you like, and tap to download. It’s a very convenient way for developers to get their wares out in front of a global audience. The problem is, it’s the only way to get an application onto an iPhone. There’s apparently going to be an Enterprise version that will let companies distribute their own custom apps to their emplyess, but what if I want to share my amazing creation (which I will begin developing just as soon as the SDK downloads — it’s being a bit slow for some reason) with a few select family and friends? No luck. I distribute via the App Store, or not at all.
I consider this problematic. There are those who decry the iTunes Store for being monopolistic in the way it ties song sales to iPods. I disagree with those people, at least in part because there are other ways you can get music onto an iPod. You have a choice. It’s not, strictly speaking, monopolistic. Apple controlling the hardware for the iPhone (and iPod touch, just by the by) as well as its operating system, as well as the sole means by which third parties can distribute their own software? That is monopolistic. Apple has a unique degree of control over its own platform with the Mac, but this system of knowing the name and location of each and every developer writing software for the iPhone platform (and iPod touch, just by the by) is unprecedented. Imagine, if you will, what would happen if Steve declared that the only way anyone could buy or sell software for the Mac was via Apple’s online store. I suspect it wouldn’t go down well.
I hope Apple is prepared for the battles — legal and technological — it is going to face in makiing that work.