Requiem for a third-party iPhone app

When it comes right down to it, what makes me sad is that my iPhone is actually, in many ways, less useful today than it was yesterday. And no, before you ask, that’s not because my iPhone was among the many that have been “bricked” because I unlocked it with third-party software. But what I did have on my iPhone was a handful of third-party applications that are now pining for the fjords after iPhone update 1.1.1.

This is perhaps how the last of the dinosaurs felt. Thursday morning, there were dozens of wild new programs being developed for the iPhone; on Friday, while those programs are not necessarily dead, their future certainly looks as bleak as if the world was blanketed in a thick heaping coat of volcanic ash.

I started experimenting with installing third-party apps about six weeks into owning my iPhone, and I saw the scene grow from a handful of applications that required delving deep into the Terminal to an astounding catalog of programs that could be installed as easily as if Apple had blessed them itself. Scrolling through Nullriver’s Installer.app in the past few weeks has actually become tedious, if only because there were so many applications available that you just didn’t have time to check them all out.

And it wasn’t all just games and time-wasting novelties, either. Third-party apps saved my bacon a few times when Apple hadn’t provided a solution to a problem at hand. For example, as someone who writes extensively about the iPhone, wouldn’t it be nice if taking a screenshot of the phone's UI was, well, possible? Snap2Album may not have been the easiest-to-use program ever, but you couldn’t argue that it worked. Now, it's apparently back to taking semi-blurry pictures with my digital camera and (in a pinch) my MacBook’s iSight.

And what about the time where, for no apparent reason, my iPhone stopped being recognized by Image Capture and iPhoto? You see, while iTunes does back up settings from your iPhone, for some bizarre reason that doesn’t include any of the pictures that you’ve taken with the iPhone’s camera. Without having installed SSH, I would have had no way of retrieving the more than 300 photos I’d taken without e-mailing each one to myself individually. As it was, I just logged into the iPhone and downloaded them all to my desktop in a couple of minutes.

Just last week, my colleague Rob Griffiths wrote an impassioned plea, asking Apple not to break third-party applications. I like to think that Apple’s not just taking a mercenary stance on this so it can milk more money from their users. I hope it has a better rationale than that. I realize the company might be concerned that a single app could wreck a phone, but in the months of hacking, pretty much the only bricked phones I’ve seen have been caused by, well, Apple.

The truth was that the native app community was the most exciting thing going in not just the iPhone world, but pretty much the entire sphere of Apple. Plenty of Mac programmers who were excited about the prospect of writing for the iPhone turned their attention to hacking away at apps while waiting for Leopard to ship. And yet, Apple willfully ignored these developments, even to the point of making itself look ridiculous. Like when, at the iPod event earlier this month, Steve Jobs waxed enthusiastic about the iPhone Facebook web app; it was kind of like listening to someone rave about how zeppelins will change air travel forever.

Look, we love Apple; that’s not going to change. The company is innovative, it’s cool, and it makes great products. But what makes those products great is what you can do with them. And today I can do less with my iPhone than I could yesterday.

Sure, I love the new shortcuts and fixes, and I’ve already said that I think the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store is a killer app, but why can’t I have that and my third-party apps? And ringtones? (Don’t even get me started on ringtones.) I’m not saying that the third-party window is closed forever. If nothing else, I’ve long learned not to bet against human ingenuity, so I hold out hope that the hackers will find a way around whatever Apple’s done to lock down the iPhone. Maybe the folks at Nullriver will have an update to Installer.app within days, making all these lamentations and rending of garments moot.

Until then, I guess I’ll just have to console myself with the fact that I can now hit the spacebar twice to type a space and a period. That would be super useful in Instant Messag—oh. Never mind.

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