Developers see potential, pitfalls with iOS 5

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When App Cubby’s David Barnard witnessed the unveiling of iOS 5 this week at the Worldwide Developers Conference, his first thought was to marvel at all the “shiny new toys.”

The second thought was a bit more sobering: Did it make sense to go back and revamp his older iOS apps to incorporate the new technologies, which include revamped notifications and messaging? Or would it be better to apply those “toys” to new projects?

“That’s probably for everyone the most challenging thing,” Barnard said. “If we could all magically rewrite our apps in two weeks and ship them iOS 5-only, we'd be ecstatic, but deciding when and how to integrate new features and tech can be a very complex decision involving financial viability, technical viability, user adoption of iOS 5, and so on.”

On Tuesday, a day after Apple unveiled the latest version of its mobile operating system, developers were still sorting through the implications. Some saw threats to their businesses, while some saw opportunities. And some—seeing the introduction of iOS 5 as inextricable from Apple’s new iCloud offering—were simply ecstatic.

“It is a system that will make your iPhone feel like another organ in a bigger solution where push notifications are the veins,” said Kristian Luoma, head of product at Wantlet, which mixes social networking and shopping opportunities. “Imagine what the developer ecosystem will do!”

But Luoma, who commented by e-mail, noted that some services that let users shift documents through the cloud, between mobile devices and Macs, might be left behind.

“Obviously quite a number of solutions will be deprecated as more integrated solution arrives,” she said. “Dropbox, a number of photo-sharing apps and third-party cloud syncronization tools will lose their wow” with the advent of iOS 5 and iCloud.

One of those services would appear to be OfficeDrop, which lets users share business documents between their iPad and computer. But Prasad Thammineni, OfficeDrop’s CEO, said he saw opportunity. Apple’s new service, he said, isn’t necessarily oriented toward business-sized customers—but it could educate those customers about the advantages of cloud storage and expand his company’s market.

“It’s going to educate consumers to say ‘I want my data to go where I go.’ That will prompt customers and small businesses to say they want to do their data the same way,” Thammineni said. He added: “So for us, we see this as a big positive thing.”

Other developers agreed. Smile Software founder Greg Scown, whose company produces the TextExpander app, saw a similar opportunity.

“Apple is bringing something called ‘typing shortcuts’ to iOS,” Scown said via e-mail. “The details are under [a nondisclosure agreement], but our experience is that when Apple adds a limited basic functionality, it actually spurs demand for our products when users want to go beyond what Apple has offered. In Snow Leopard, Text Substitution didn’t replace TextExpander—it made users more aware of how powerful and useful TextExpander is.”

Following Monday’s keynote, Macworld contacted other developers to comment on some of the features outlined by Apple during its iOS presentation. Among the features capturing app makers’ attention:

Twitter integration: The Posterous blogging app already allows users to post content to Twitter and other social media sites, but CEO Sachin Agarwal—a former Apple exec—welcomes the tighter integration offered in the new iOS. A “single sign-on lets our users share their Posterous photos and find their friends on Twitter even more easily,” he said. “This … is great news for all iOS developers as it greatly improves the cold start experience.”

Games: Acceleroto’s Bryan Duke, who creates gaming apps for the iPhone and iPad, noted that turn-based gameplay is built into the new iOS. “We have a turn based game that’s been in development for a few months,” Duke said. “Not having to develop and manage our own server infrastructure is a significant streamlining in game development. I’m happy to be able to shut down my test server and move the game to Game Center in iOS 5.”

Pictures: Thammineni said OfficeDrop is often used by corporate customers who take on-the-spot pictures of expense receipts and upload them to the company’s accounting department for immediate approval. The enhanced camera features in iOS 5 will be a benefit. “The image-enhancement functionality will make the picture you take better,” he said.

Notifications: Wantlet’s Luoma saw commerce possibilities with the new notifications and messaging features “to enable better experience in receiving near real-time alerts related to what you want to buy—and sharing the comments with your friends.”

Over-the-air iOS updates: Babak Hedayati, CEO of MobiLife, which makes the MyTymz journaling app, said many iPhone users never plug their phone into a PC—and thus never get iOS updates. That makes it hard to serve older customers as the technology moves forward. That should be less of a problem now that updates will occur wirelessly. “If you go full-feature (on a new iOS) and you’re on the leading edge, sometimes the newer app doesn’t work with the older versions,” he said. “There’s a group of iPhone users who hardly ever connect their phones to their PCs or Macs—10 or 20 percent who just use it as a phone.”

The new updating system, he said, “is really going to make it better for app developers.”

But App Cubby’s Barnard, while still keeping his options open, suggested that the best part of iOS 5 won’t be the ability to overhaul old apps, but the ability to create something entirely new.

“With my existing apps, I don’t see anything that I’ll try to incorporate on day one,” Barnard said. But “I do see other opportunities, with all these new features. I may go out and build a brand-new app to take advantage.”

James Thomson of TLA Systems, maker of the PCalc calculator app, praised iOS 5 from both user and developer perspectives.

“Many holes in the APIs are being filled, and that will allow us to write apps that are approaching the power of those on the Mac,” Thomson said. “As a user, I’m just glad to see that almost every major criticism I had of iOS appears to have been addressed. So I can’t wait until it is released."

[Joel Mathis is a frequent contributor to Macworld.]

Updated at 9:51 a.m. PT to correct and expand a quote.

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