iPhone hack session wraps up C4 conference

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While this weekend’s C4 conference was primarily an opportunity for independent Mac developers to partake in panels presented by their compatriots as well as schmooze with their fellow developers, it was impossible to deny the importance of Apple’s latest blockbuster product, the iPhone.

Of course, Mac developers are among the most passionate users of the platform, and that’s no different when it comes to the iPhone. There was easily a higher saturation of iPhone owners at the C4 conference than I’ve seen anywhere else: probably around half of the attendees could be found tapping away in their spare moments: checking their e-mail, Twittering away, and often complaining about the speed of AT&T’s EDGE connection.

But the continued lack of an official software development kit for the iPhone is still very much an open wound in the community as well. “They always told me to open with a joke,” said Delicious Monster ’s Wil Shipley on Friday night, “so… iPhone SDK.”

Not that the lack of formal help from Apple is going to stop these guys. While many of the developers I talked to expressed their intense frustration with the situation, if anything it’s just driven some of them that much harder to puzzle out the platform on their own.

iPhone geeks were everywhere at C4, as evidenced by Daring Fireball’s John Gruber and Rogue Amoeba’s Paul Kafasis.

The concluding session of the conference was an event called Iron Coder Live, patterned on both the informal Iron Coder competitions that are run over the Internet and the hack sessions at the old MacHack conference. Users were given an Application Programming Interface (API) and a theme, and invited to come up with a “hack” along those lines. The API this year was, unsurprisingly, the iPhone and the theme “conspiracy.” Many hacks veered from these themes, as there were a few Mac-based hacks demoed and plenty whose connection to “conspiracy” were as tenuous as many conspiracy theories themselves.

However, the hacks that seemed to impress the audience the most were the ones that featured native iPhone applications: programs that run locally on the iPhone instead of Web-based apps run via the iPhone’s version of Safari.

Jonathan Saggau created a native version of classic video game Pong, dubbed iPong, which allowed control of the paddle by using the iPhone’s accelerometer, touchscreen, or a combination of both. Furthermore, Saggau added two-player support over the network, letting a competing player challenge the iPhone user from a Mac laptop. He admitted the app still needed some tweaks, pointing out that it was too difficult to control on the iPhone and too easy on the laptop—hence his victory over conference organizer Wolf Rentzsch by a score of 24 to 3.

Lucas Newman, who works on Delicious Library, also developed a native game for the iPhone based on the electronic handheld game Lights Out. Newman intends to make his application available for download, and called on the rest of the attendees to release their iPhone apps to the public as well, in the hopes of convincing Apple to open the platform to developers. At present, you can find a video demonstration of the app on his Web site.

The winning hack from Ken and Glen Aspeslagh—two-way video conferencing on the iPhone—in action.

The winning hack, however, went to brothers Ken and Glen Aspeslagh, who also run software house Ecamm Network. To introduce their hack, they explained that most of their day job involves fooling around with cameras—Ecamm makes the iSight-enhancement program iGlasses and also an application called iChatUSBCam that lets you use USB-based webcams in iChat. Their previous experience made a natural jumping-off point for their hack: two-way video conferencing on the iPhone.

While the pair admitted that the program was an extremely rough hack at present, it still elicited a chorus of oohs and ahhs from the gathered developers. I had a chance to take a look at it close up later on and was impressed by what I saw (namely: myself and a co-chatter). The app functions in both landscape and portrait mode, using a picture-in-picture method similar to iChat for the former and a split top-and-bottom view for the latter; it’ll switch formats when you rotate the phone. In addition, if you make a phone call, then launch the app, you can get both audio and video at the same time.

The video isn’t full speed: rather, it’s comprised of pictures taken every so often by the iPhone’s camera and sent over the network. One problem that the Aspeslaghs couldn’t combat in software was the fact that the iPhone’s camera, like many smartphones, is on the back of the case. They turned instead to a more MacGyver-like solution, taking a pair of wire cutters to one of the Huckleberry mirrors that Ecamm sells to turn your MacBook or MacBook Pro’s iSight into a video camera, which they noticed also made a pretty good stand for the iPhone.

The Aspeslaghs told me that they don’t plan to make the application available for download yet, as it’s still in need of refinement, but that it wasn’t out of the question in the future. You can find more about the hack at their blog.

One thing’s for certain: Developers aren’t letting Apple's barriers obstruct them in their quest to code for the hottest new platform around. So don’t be surprised if the first new native applications for your iPhone don’t come from Cupertino.

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