Developers weigh in on iOS 4

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Apple’s iOS 4, released this past week, may boast 100 new features for end-users. But it’s the features most users don’t see that could end up having the more lasting effect on how they use their mobile devices.

That’s because in addition to boasting such consumer-friendly additions like Folders, multitasking, and Mail enhancements, iOS 4 also promises around 1500 APIs aimed at developers. Software makers will be able to use those APIs to improve the apps you know and love as well as deliver entirely new offerings to the App Store.

So are developers as impressed with iOS 4’s APIs as other users seem to be with the OS’s front-facing features? The developers Macworld spoke to seem just as excited about iOS 4 as end-users are.

“There’s a lot of really great stuff in iOS 4 that makes developing for it an even nicer experience than on the Mac,” said Justin Williams, crew chief of Second Gear Software.

Praise from Williams is particularly interesting—the developer sold his apps in October 2009 and got out of the iPhone business. Williams cited the App Store’s “bureaucracy and infrastructure that surrounds it,” as his primary gripe.

But a lot has changed in the past year, Williams told Macworld, and he’s not just talking about the shiny new iOS 4. Apple has released the iPad and “showed improvements” in both App Store policies and the review process. “It’s obvious that this is the direction Apple wants to take things,” Williams said, “and I don’t want to be that guy five years from now still building Classic software.”

Brent Simmons, developer of NetNewsWire for NewsGator, says he’s “quite happy” with iOS 4. Like most developers, he is already working on updating NetNewsWire’s artwork for the iPhone 4’s high-resolution Retina Display. Greg Scown, co-founder of SmileOnMyMac which makes TextExpander for iPhone, is “thrilled with the increased amounts of the Cocoa and Foundation frameworks available to iOS developers.”

Across all of the developers that Macworld spoke with, it’s clear that multitasking features like fast app switching and task completion topped their wish lists for iOS 4. They generally seem quite happy to get this access to functionality that users have been demanding practically since the App Store debuted in 2008, though it isn’t as broad as some developers wanted.

“I was hoping for some sort of background updating of networked data like Twitter or Instapaper,” Williams said. “A new notification system would have been nice too. I suppose they have to save something for iOS 5.”

Besides not going far enough with multitasking, some developers think Apple went too far in other areas. “I think iAds is a place Apple didn’t need to go,” Paul Kafasis, CEO of Rogue Amoeba, told Macworld. “I’ll be interested to see if it works out for them, and for software makers. Perhaps it will be beneficial to nearly everyone. If it flames out, however, I would not be terribly surprised.”

William Shipley, chief executive monster of Delicious Monster, also reiterated a lasting grief of many developers: “[Apple] needs to level the playing field in the App Store by not capriciously rejecting apps whose functionality they disagree with.” A recent example: Apple’s purge of widget-style apps, in which the company removed app that let users overlay sticky notes, weather, music controls, and other functions on top of a photo. Apple’s developer agreement didn’t contain any prohibition against widget apps, and Apple had OK’d updates to the apps before without any complaint.

As far as the threat that Android may pose to the iPhone, the developers that Macworld spoke with didn’t seem too concerned. Of course, some welcomed Google’s mobile OS and the competition it increasingly brings to Apple’s doorstep. However, they weren’t too interested in porting their wares to Android. “I don’t want to write in Java and I don’t want to try to support such a diverse array of devices,” Simmons said via e-mail.

Williams is in the same boat, though he gave a Nexus One Android phone a trial as his sole phone for a week and documented the experience. While Android piqued his curiosity as a user, he doesn’t seem interested in developing software for it.

Overall, then, it seems developers like what they see with iOS 4 and iPhone 4. They’re excited about the new iOS 4 features they can build into their apps, they’re itching to check out Apple’s latest feat of industrial design, but they’re also thankful that Android is here to keep Apple on its toes. After all, someone has to do it.

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Multitasking features are a welcome addition
    • Lots of great, smaller refinements
    • Zippy performance


    • Holes in multitasking functionality
    • Mail still lacks flagging, full text search
    • Despite folders, app management still feels clunky
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