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Apple’s iPhone Third-Party Apps Will Be Better Than Feared

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Steve Jobs, iCEO of Apple, spoke at the Apple World-Wide Developers Conference on Monday, and the reaction has been less than enthusiastic. Chief among the complaints from Apple developers seems to be the lack of third-party development options for the forthcoming iPhone. Many people I respect seem to be quite upset. John Gruber of Daring Fireball characterizes Apple's stance as “you can write great apps for the iPhone: they’re called ‘web sites,’” and complaining, “It’s insulting, because it’s not a way to write iPhone apps, and you can’t bullshit developers. It’s a matter of spin.” Michael Tsai quotes Steve Jobs from May to undermine the enthusiasm of Steve Jobs in June. If standard Web 2.0 apps aren't good enough for Apple, the reasoning goes, then why should they be good enough for non-Apple developers?

I think they're missing the point, just a little. Not by much, but crucially.

If Apple were simply trying to draw attention, again, to the fact that the Safari web browser in the iPhone is full-featured, then yes, Jobs probably should have worded it differently. Especially when you consider that the Adobe Flash Plugin is by no means guaranteed! But many people seem to be overlooking something important in Apple's announcements.

Apple's statement isn't just that one can develop Web 2.0 applications in Safari that will work in the iPhone. That's true, but read it all, especially the part I've emphasized: "Developers can create Web 2.0 applications which look and behave just like the applications built into iPhone, and which can seamlessly access iPhone’s services, including making a phone call, sending an email and displaying a location in Google Maps."

I can write Web 2.0 apps for Safari all day long and never manage to get my iMac to make a phone call, send an email, or display a location in a separate Google Maps application, so clearly there is something more than just Web 2.0 development here. Perhaps not much more, but the demonstrated LDAP application shown in the keynote address should be a clue. That application doesn't look like a typical Web 2.0 application; it looks like an iPhone application. Although we didn't see it dial or send an email, it would be pretty useless without those abilities, so I presume it can do both of those things, too.

So it's not a full-blown SDK for iPhone, but it's more than a list of website bookmarks, too. Rather than reinvent the wheel yet again, creating yet another SDK for developers, Apple is leveraging existing Web 2.0 expertise and providing a stripped-down SDK that allows phone calls, emails, and maps locations, and possibly more. All of this before the first ship date of June 29!

Steve Jobs has gone from saying that no third-party development will be allowed to saying that third-party development will be allowed using a limited but powerful development environment. While disappointing to some who had built up high hopes on a foundation of no evidence, that's progress. Does it put the iPhone behind competing smartphones with full SDKs? Maybe. For certain types of apps, almost certainly. Time will tell how much of a disadvantage — or advantage — the limited development options actually are. For now, we can only wait for the details to slowly slip out from under NDA, and see what developers manage to produce.

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About pwinn

  • Munan

    Oh my God… Look, Flash is not an core function of Safari.
    Saying that Safari is “full-featured” and then saying it can’t possibly be because some other app doesn’t work is just silly.
    I will concede that the wording could have been different, but as a former Apple employee, I knew what he meant.

  • Tim

    This phone is so over-hyped. Pathetic..

  • Raoul

    Thanks for pointing this out, Phillip. While I can understand why Apple would want to lock down access to the OS for a device as new as the iPhone, I’m glad to see they’ve built some of the phone’s functionality into the Safari SDK. Whether that’s a good or bad approach remains to be seen. I’m curious to see what sorts of web apps people will write for it.

  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    Munan, where did I suggest that Flash is a core function of Safari? I described it as exactly the opposite!

    “If Apple were simply trying to draw attention, again, to the fact that the Safari web browser in the iPhone is full-featured, then yes, Jobs probably should have worded it differently. Especially when you consider that the Adobe Flash Plugin is by no means guaranteed!”

    The fact that the Safari web browser in the iPhone is full-featured is not in any way dependent on the presence or absence of the Adobe Flash Plugin, note.

    Please read, don’t just skim!

  • http://www.heathsnow.com Heath Snow

    My only fear is that we’ll begin seeing advertisements in our *apps* that distract from the function. Hopefully this isn’t the case.

    Also, one can only hope that the iPhone will support icon bookmarks that can coexist next to the native apps. This one thing, I think, would appease many.

  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    Heath, I doubt Apple will share their precious screen real estate, but it’s possible. More likely in my opinion is that they need to be bookmarks. :-(

  • http://personafile.com/Apple-iPhone-apps.html KC Edwards

    The iPhone is a great all-in-one communications device.