Developers excited by iPhone SDK, but questions linger

Developers have been pining for the ability to write programs for the iPhone since the handset was first announced in January 2007. But despite numerous pronouncements on the subject by Apple executives, the details of how independent developers would create iPhone were unclear until Thursday. In the wake of Apple's release of its first official iPhone software development kit (SDK), Mac developers reacted with enthusiasm tempered with caution.

Getting technical

From a technical standpoint, developers seemed more than satisfied with the scope and depth of the tools that Apple said it would be providing.

“There’s no question it’s good news overall,” said Paul Kafasis, CEO of Rogue Amoeba, publisher of Mac audio software. “This is a whole new platform—it’s the platform developers wanted nine months ago, when Apple said ‘Web Apps are a sweet solution.’ It took a while, but it’s finally here, and that’s good for almost everyone. Except maybe Palm. And RIM. And Win CE.”

Ken Aspeslagh, iPhone specialist at Ecamm Network, which makes the iPhone companion program MegaPhone, agreed. “It exceeded all of my expectations,” he said. “This is the first time a mobile phone company has provided this kind of capability.”

“It’s way more than I had hoped for,” said Fraser Speirs, owner of software firm Connected Flow. “I had anticipated that there might be a desktop simulator, as Palm had many moons ago, but I wasn’t expecting that we would get full Interface Builder support. That’s going to cut the time to market significantly.”

John Casasanta, President of utility developer Inventive Software, also reacted positively to the news that developers would be getting access to Apple’s own tools. “It’s fantastic that what Apple’s making available is the exact SDK that they’re using internally,” Casasanta said.

Prior to the release, there had been a lot of questions about whether or not Apple would in some way restrict what developers could and could not do, but from the technical details laid out at today’s presentation, it appears that will not be a major issue. However, there are likely some shortcomings in the SDK that will only be discovered as developers dig in and begin the work of writing software.

For example, Kafasis said, it's unclear what access developers will have to the iPhone’s file system. And Ecamm's Aspeslagh pointed out that the rules on what access programs will have to the iPhone's EDGE and Wi-Fi data networks are also unclear.

During a question-and-answer session with the press after Thursday's event, Jobs said Voice over IP (VoIP) functionality, which lets you make phone calls over the Internet, would be allowed over Wi-Fi connections, but not on AT&T’s EDGE network.

Distribution deal

While Apple appears to have largely satisfied developers in terms of the SDK’s technical aspects, many still had questions about Apple’s role in distribution. The developers we asked about the $99 fee for distributing applications had no qualms about paying up, but there were some concerns about Apple’s cut of the application cost, which the company said would be 30 percent and would go to operations and expenses.

Aspeslagh described the figure as “high” and speculated that larger companies might negotiate better deals, leaving the smaller developers with a smaller cut; Kafasis deemed himself “satisfied” with the split, pointing out that though 70 percent was less than his company made from the sale of their existing Mac apps, “the potential for massive exposure is tremendous.”

Speirs agreed with the tradeoffs. “Thirty percent is more than I’m used to paying for these kind of services, but you can’t buy the eyeballs that being on an Apple property will get you," he said. "Making it up in volume can be a slightly dicey proposition when you’re a one-man shop responsible for support. It would be nice if the AppStore would handle first-line installation and setup support in return for that 30 percent but I don’t expect that to happen.”

Money was not the only aspect of Apple’s distribution scheme that developers wondered about. Unlike with Mac software, which is available from a nearly unlimited number of channels, iPhone applications will only be available through Apple, which will have final say on whether or not programs are allowed for download. Steve Jobs only pointed to a few restrictions at today’s event, saying that Apple wouldn’t distribute apps that were considered pornographic, malicious, illegal, or might use up too much network bandwidth.

“We need to worry about what [Apple] considers ‘malicious,’” Kafasis said, citing the example of Radioshift, a Rogue Amoeba OS X application for listening to Internet radio that the company is considering bringing to the iPhone. “If people are listening to streaming internet radio, they may buy less music, hurting the iTunes Music store. Just how much control will Apple exert?”

Ecamm’s Aspeslagh added that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple provide a big list of restrictions, “subject to change without notice.”

But these potential restrictions didn’t bother Casasanta, who described the Apple-sanctioned download store as a filter for quality applications. “I’m sure that even though the ‘official’ way to get an app on the iPhone will be through Apple, developers will still find hacks to make their apps work if they’re rejected,” he said.

Speirs pointed out one potential hiccup for the process. “If users pay for your app and Apple decides to revoke its permission to execute, who compensates the users? Me? Apple? We need a test case on that one.”

Developing situation

One thing many developers agreed on: the iPhone SDK is good for the Mac, too. The SDK will allow Mac developers to use the same tools that they currently use to create applications for OS X, such as Xcode, Interface Builder, and Instruments, meaning that they have a huge leg up on developers coming from the Windows side. And if that’s not enough, there’s the matter of hardware, too: companies that want to develop for the iPhone will need to do so on a Mac; there are no developer tools for Windows or Linux.

“Mac developers will absolutely have a huge advantage, without a doubt,” said Kafasis. “While developers from other platforms are fighting to learn Xcode, Mac developers will already be shipping.”

Despite the fact that iPhone applications won’t be available to customers until the iPhone 2.0 update appears in June, developers were pleased that the SDK was available immediately, since it will give them plenty of time to start their work. Of the applications demoed at the iPhone event, several were developed with just a few weeks experience with the SDK, but developers didn’t think the process would be quite as quick as Apple was suggesting.

“I don’t think Apple did us any favors by saying ‘Look at these apps that were made in just two weeks!’,” said Rogue Amoeba’s Kafasis. “Those apps weren’t polished, they weren’t ready to ship, but now customers are going to think we can do this instantly. It’s much like when Apple said it was just a checkbox and a recompile to get Intel support. It’s not actually that simple.”

Inventive’s Casasanta concurred: “Unless there’s something magical in the SDK that they haven’t mentioned yet, I’m expecting development cycles to be in the normal range which could be months for small apps to years for substantial ones.”

But make no mistake: developers are champing at the bit to start coding for the iPhone. “I’m ready to delve into this with some ideas that I’ve been mulling over since the iPhone came out,” said Casasanta.

Speirs said that it sounded like the technology that Connected Flow’s Flickr Export depended on would be present, so things were “looking good” for that app, adding “I also have another app idea that I think will play really well on the iPhone.”

Ecamm’s Aspeslagh said that his company was planning to develop some iPhone applications, but declined to discuss specifics.

“Give us some time to get cooking,” said Rogue Amoeba’s Kafasis, adding that the company had already announced its plans to bring its Airfoil media-streaming app to the iPhone. “Stay tuned for updates from us and all your favorite developers—you can be sure we’re working on things already."

Senior editor Peter Cohen and News director Jim Dalrymple contributed to this report.

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