Editor's Corner: iPhone bad for developers

iPhone: Now for the bad news

Apple announced the iPhone last week, and in many ways it blew away expectations. Widescreen video playback, a slick Web browser and WiFi support are excellent surprises. And, of course, the phone looks fabulous.

But a few days have passed since the MacWorld keynote, and Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field has begun to dissipate. It was inevitable; the level of buzz leading up to the MacWorld keynote was so high that some people were bound to feel let down.

The iPhone is neither the first button-less phone (check out LG's award-winning design) nor is it the first iTunes compatible phone (who could forget the ill-fated Motorola ROKR?). It's also got a mere 8GB of non-expandable storage at best, which means that any self-respecting music fans is going to have to lug around an iPod too. Mobile phone geeks are bummed that the iPhone won't ship with 3G support out of the box, though HSDPA will probably be added later and, frankly, EDGE+WiFi is good enough for most users. A bigger issue for consumers is the Cingular-only distribution strategy, which is a mistake, but it's not fatal.

The real problem with the iPhone is Apple's complete lack of concern for third-party developers. Not only is there no SDK available, but Apple has expressed a desire to maintain compete control over the "consumer experience." Apple won't even disclose what processor the phone is running. (According to an FBR Research report cited by the EE Times, the CPU is made by Samsung.) The iPhone also has no memory card slot and no support for Java or Flash. It's not even clear if Apple will allow users to install unapproved ringtones.

According to a Newsweek interview, Steve Jobs said: "You don't want your phone to be an open platform...You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn't want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up." It's a laughable excuse; Cingular offers plenty of other Smartphones with open platforms and none of them have crashed the network yet. I'm sure that I'm preaching to the choir, but an open platform benefits everyone. Well, nearly everyone. I imagine some people drop the 15-cents-per-message SMS-based chat client once third-party developers port iChat to the platform (a suspicious oversight on Apple's part).

What can concerned developers do about the iPhone? Not much. Apple's plans are still largely a mystery, and presumably there will eventually be some system that allows developers to submit applications to Apple so they can be approved to distribution. In the meantime, some indie developers are to filing bug reports about the lack of support. I guess it can't hurt, but I don't think this is a decision Apple made lightly. Apple managed to sell millions of iPods without opening up the DRM to competitors, and the company is hoping to do the same here. -Eli