When Steve Jobs announced a plan to let software makers build Web-based applications for Apple's iPhone during this week's Worldwide Developers Conference, he called it "a pretty sweet solution." But many of the developers at the week-long conference in San Francisco are fairly sour about the arrangement.
Jobs announced at the tail-end of Monday's keynote that developers would have some access to building programs for the highly anticipated iPhone, which hits stores in the US and is expected to hit Europe by the end of the year. However, instead of releasing a software developer kit, Jobs told developers that they would be able to create Web 2.0 applications that run within the iPhone's version of the Safari Web browser using programming tools like Ajax.
Jobs touted the move as a balance between developers' calls for iPhone access, with Apple's requirements for the phone's security and reliability during its initial launch. In the run-up to the iPhone launch, the Apple CEO has frequently voiced his concerns about third-party apps causing the device to crash.
Disappointment among developers
While developers attending WWDC understood those concerns, they were let down by the news that they wouldn't have full access to creating iPhone programs - at least for now.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed," said John Casasanta, president of Inventive Software. "However, it's too early to tell what kind of access we are ultimately going to have."
AppZapper and Disco developer Austin Sarner echoed Casasanta's remarks. "Unless you're able to write code with an SDK and output an application, it's just basically a Web page," he said.
Just as the iPhone has stirred up interest among consumers, the mobile phone is of particular interest to software makers, who are clamouring for the opportunity to extend their products to a potentially blockbuster device. Those developers were particularly enthusiastic about the prospect for iPhone development in light of comments from Jobs that seemed to indicate a softening of Apple's opposition to third-party apps on its phone.
Following the iPhone's Macworld Expo preview, Jobs said that Apple would "define everything that is on the phone" - by last month's D: All Things Digital conference, the Apple CEO sounded more open to third-party involvement.
"I think sometime later this year we will find a way to let third parties write apps and still preserve security," Jobs said at that conference.
Ajax and Safari are limiting
Whether that turns out to be greater access down the road, developers with iPhone ambitions find themselves relying on Ajax and Safari for now. It's an arrangement many expect to be limiting.
"The applications seem more like Dashboard widgets, but a little more restricted," Casasanta said. "As it stands right now, the way they demoed the apps to us, you won't even be able to add your apps to the [iPhone's] home screen - that will make it a second-class citizen right there."
"Everything seems so limited at this point," Sarner said. "It seems like a lot of work considering how simple the iPhone should be."
Not all developers are disappointed with Apple's current solution. Kevin Ford, president of telephony software maker Parliant, believes his PhoneValet phone messaging system for personal and business users will integrate nicely with the ability to write Web 2.0 and Ajax applications. Besides its phone messaging capabilities, PhoneValet provides access to things like call logs and the address book, and emails messages to users. Ford said the iPhone will have access to those features just like any other Web browser or telephone would.
To that end, Parliant is working on optimised pages for its users that will be specifically formatted for the iPhone, Ford added.
Hope for the future
Regardless of how they feel about building Web-based apps for the iPhone, developers said they understood the challenge of ensuring security while allowing access to the iPhone that Apple faces.
"Apple is not letting anybody in and they have invited us to use Web technologies - they found a way not to say no," said Ford. "That doesn't mean they aren't working on something else."
Ford said that computer users have accepted a lower sense of quality than phone users in their products. While users may be used to rebooting their computers, mobile phone users get annoyed quickly if their device crashes.
"Apple must hold to that standard so I understand their dilemma," said Ford.
For their part, developers Casasanta and Sarner are playing a waiting game to see what kind of access Apple will give software makers in the future.
"There are still opportunities for good add-ons," Casasanta said. "It will be better when they figure out how to give developers more access without risking security."
"I'm definitely not going to write an iPhone only app," Sarner said. "I certainly can't port anything I have now - I'll keep an open mind and see how things go."