The iPhone SDK has all the right answers

It’s not often I write something completely positive about Apple…but there are exceptions to every rule, as I’m about to prove. As Thursday’s iPhone special event approached, I was looking forward to it, but with some trepidation. As a user who has had third-party applications on his iPhone almost since such a thing was first possible, I had concerns that Apple wouldn’t quite understand how well this system had been working.

But now, having read the coverage of Apple’s briefing, I am happy to admit I was completely off-base with my concerns. I think Apple has hit a proverbial home run here, with everything from the Enterprise support to the actual SDK to the approach it plans to take for distribution. Here’s why I think Apple did everything right…

Enterprise support

Even though AT&T hasn’t offered an enterprise iPhone plan until recently, there’s no doubt that iPhones are in use at any number of large companies (including Apple, of course). Apple, it seems, has seen this, and proved today that it’s listened to these unofficial yet very important corporate customers. By adding full Exchange support, remote wipe capabilities, Cisco IPsec VPN, WPA2, and other such features, Apple has removed all the roadblocks to large-scale corporate purchasing.

The SDK

From a non-technical person’s perspective, the SDK would seem to deliver everything a developer could possibly want. Developers have access to the iPhone’s sensors, its locating abilities, OpenGL graphics, OpenAL audio, audio recording, the camera, and much more. The SDK is free, and runs on top of Xcode. It includes a drag-and-drop library of iPhone interface objects for use in Interface Builder, the ability to locally debug an app running on the iPhone, video capture and performance analysis tools to find bottlenecks, and perhaps most impressively, a full iPhone simulator that runs on your Mac, so you can develop for the iPhone even if you don’t yet have one.

While the SDK is free, if you want your application distributed, it will cost you $99 to join the iPhone developer program. I think this is a reasonable arrangement—by not distributing apps for free from every single developer, Apple will make sure that those who want their apps distributed are at least somewhat serious about their projects. And yet, the $99 price point is low enough that even smaller developers will be tempted by the opportunity for millions of iPhone users to see and potentially purchase their program.

About the only downside here is that Windows developers will need to purchase a Mac to develop for the iPhone…as if having to buy a Mac is a downside.

Distribution

This was the area where I feared Apple could make the largest mistake—tying the distribution of the applications to a desktop machine and iTunes. I was, in fact, confident that there would be iTunes integration, and maybe a “lite” version of the store on the iPhone itself. Well, I was half right—there is an iTunes component, but that’s more of the “lite” model, and the real App Store lives on the iPhone itself. It runs over both EDGE and wireless, and seems to make installing and updating applications just as simple as it is today with Installer.app. One might theorize, in fact, that any number of Apple engineers have been using Installer.app themselves, for the App Store seems to borrow many of the Installer’s best features.

The cost for developers seems fairly reasonable, too—Apple takes 30 percent to cover the bandwidth costs, store management issues, credit card fees, and processing costs. So if you price your program at $10, you’ll get $7 to keep for every copy sold, and you’ve got no overhead to worry about at all—just write your app, and Apple takes care of all the administrative details for you. (It remains to be seen what sort of reporting Apple will provide to developers—will it have sales reports, get customers’ names, etc.?)

My other area of concern was free applications, and Apple again had a great answer: bring ‘em on! The App Store will distribute free programs, as long as the developer has paid the $99 to join the iPhone developer program. (It seems that some portion of that 30 percent the other developers give up probably helps cover this freeware distribution.)

The only real hole in this distribution methodology seems to be shareware applications. As the App Store works now, a program is either freely distributed or must be purchased to be used. All that means, though, is that you’ll need to distribute shareware for the iPhone as you would shareware for the Mac: free to download, you’re on your own for cash collection, and use nag screens and registration codes to encourage registration. It’d be great if Apple came up with some sort of trial-version timeout feature, so that the App Store could handle shareware payments, too—perhaps we’ll see that in a future update.

Final thoughts

Overall, this was one of the most “we get it” Apple announcements I can recall—even more so than this year’s Expo keynote, which I also felt was well thought out. Apple clearly understood how the iPhone has been used by those of use who are running the unapproved third party apps, and it has done its best to make the process work just the same with the official applications. The demo games and apps all looked quite impressive, and even the June delay doesn’t bother me—just think about how many amazing apps the App Store will be offering on launch day! (The fact that I’ll continue to use third party apps on my jailbroken iPhone until then probably helps dull the pain of the wait, too.)

So thanks, Apple, for doing everything right with this iPhone SDK. I can’t wait to see what kinds of things the always-creative developers bring to the table in June.

  
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