Developers see possibilities in iPhone apps

Users eager to get their hands on an iPhone may have June 29 circled on their calendars to mark the mobile device’s announced ship date. But for software developers, the most significant date in the build-up to the iPhone’s release was easily May 30. That’s the day Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage at the D: All Things Digital Conference near San Diego and announced that his company is working to make its eagerly anticipated mobile phone open to outside developers, reversing months of skeptical statements about third-party involvement.

For software makers, the latest pronouncement by Jobs, though lacking specifics, couldn’t be more welcome. It indicates that they’ll have a chance to create versions of their apps—or come up with entirely new programs—that will run on what potentially could be the most popular mobile device since Apple’s iPod.

“Overall, I think this is a great decision on Apple’s part,” Austin Sarner, the developer of AppZapper and Disco said. “Apple really excels at creating a solid foundation for a community of users and developers, and the iPhone seems no different.”

Jobs’ encouraging words to developers came during a Q-and-A session at the D: All Things Digital conference, an annual gathering of tech industry heavy hitters sponsored by the Wall Street Journal . Asked by an audience member about the possibility of third-party companies creating iPhone apps, Jobs suggested that was a distinct possibility in the months following the device’s June launch.

“We’re working through a way [to support third-party development],” Jobs said. “We’ve got some pretty good ideas that we’re working through, and I think sometime later this year we will find a way to let third parties write apps and still preserve security.”

Apple’s position evolves

That’s a decided shift from Apple’s previous—and scanty—public pronouncements on the subject. Shortly after unveiling the phone in January, Jobs told the New York Times that Apple intended to closely control what went on the iPhone. “We define everything that is on the phone,” Jobs told the Times . “You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore.”

Many interpreted that comment to mean that Apple would keep the iPhone closed to third-party development. But on May 10, at Apple’s annual shareholders meeting, Jobs’s tone toward such development changed. The CEO said that Apple was “wrestling” with a way to support third-party development on the iPhone. And Jobs’s comments at last week’s D conference suggest that Apple is open to third-party iPhone apps—once the security and stability of the phone can be established.

“Nobody’s perfect, but we sure don’t want our phone to crash,” Jobs told D attendees. “We would like to solve this problem, if you could be just a little more patient with us, I think everyone can get what they want.”

That’s a stance developers can appreciate. “I can understand their concern where they don’t want after-market apps taking down the whole phone network,” said iClip developer John Casasanta, who called last week’s comments by Jobs “fantastic.” “I’m sure it’s doable to have a good balance between safety and development freedom.”

If Apple is able to balance security and stability concerns with the demand for third-party software, one analyst expects a big payoff for both Apple and its developers.

“This opens up new opportunities and new revenue streams for Apple and the developers,” said Ross Rubin, director of analysis at NPD Group. “This makes it a more appealing prospect for customers who will have more options and be able to customize the iPhone to fit their needs.”

Indeed, in the months following the iPhone’s unveiling, many mobile-device industry analysts pointed out that a closed system would put the iPhone at a disadvantage. Competing devices have that capability, those analysts argued, meaning users would expect a certain degree of customization from the iPhone.

Whither Widgets?

As with many specifics about the iPhone, the details on just when and how developers will be able to create programs for the mobile device are still up in the air. Chief among the questions: Will Apple release a developers’ kit for the iPhone? Next week’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco figures to shed some light on that issue, with the New York Times reporting that Apple “intends to announce that it will make it possible for developers of small programs written for the Macintosh to easily convert them to run on the iPhone.”

What the Times’s source refers to as “small programs” is still in question, but it’s possible that this refers to Mac OS X’s Dashboard technology, in which small “widgets” written largely in the JavaScript scripting language grab basic data from the Internet and display it in an attractive interface.

But beyond simple software such as widgets, the question remains: what kinds of full-blown apps would be appropriate for the iPhone? One of the post-interview questions during Jobs’ appearance at the D: All things Digital conference last week was posed by Blake Krikorian, the CEO of Sling Media, makers of the Slingbox video-streaming product. Sling has created remote SlingPlayer applications for cell phones running the Windows Mobile and Palm operating systems.

While the company hasn’t announced any specific interest in creating a version of SlingPlayer for the iPhone, Krikorian’s question to Jobs complained about the limited bandwidth on the iPhone’s built-in EDGE cellular data network. (Jobs responded by praising the speed of EDGE and pointing out that when an iPhone senses a Wi-Fi network, it attempts to join that network and use it for data transmission instead.)

A phone is not a desktop

Even at this early stage, Mac developers are realistic that much of their existing programs and user-interface designs may not make it over to a new platform—even if it is based on Mac OS X.

“In general I think it’s an interesting idea, but I think it’s important to remember that even though it may run Mac OS X, a phone is not a desktop platform, so the considerations for both developers and customers are very different from Mac OS X on the desktop,” said Rich Siegel, president of Bare Bones Software, echoing Jobs’s own statements on the need for a different user interface for iPhone-based software.

Having said that, Siegel did not rule out bringing his existing products over to the iPhone at some point. “I think that certain products in our line could be expressed very nicely on the iPhone,” he added.

Developer Sarner finds himself in a similar situation with his popular uninstall utility AppZapper. “If a strong enough community develops with a good amount of third-party apps and the technology is similar enough, AppZapper could definitely be ported,” he said.

iClip develop Casasanta doesn’t see his app as a good match for the iPhone—“I just don’t see [porting iClip] making sense,” he said—he has some other ideas for projects that might appeal to iPhone users. “Atmosphere, an app that we’re working on at My Dream App that puts a beautiful image of the current weather on your desktop, is a prime candidate,” Casasanta said. “With a bit of adapting, we should be able to make a version of it that’s at home on the iPhone.”

NPD analyst Rubin sees iTunes as being one possible vehicle for delivering applications to the iPhone. Besides giving users a familiar interface, it will also give Apple the chance to certify applications for the device.

For example, Apple tightly controls all development of software for the iPod. All games developed for the iPod are distributed by Apple via the iTunes Store, rather than being made available for individual download on developers’ web sites. It’s a situation that’s left some Mac game developers disappointed.

In any event, Mac developers see the iPhone potentially being a catalyst for having even more Apple-based developers in the future, which could in turn, mean more developers on the Mac platform as well.

“Developer tools like XCode and Interface Builder are absolutely phenomenal,” Sarner said. “With the release of Tiger, the Widget development scene exploded and there are an insane number of widgets being created and used every day. I’ve got no reason to believe the iPhone would be any less important, and with the raw cool factor the device has going for it, I’d say we could see the iPhone dev scene rising up quite quickly.”

Macworld’s Jason Snell contributed to this report.

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