How Far Can Web Apps Take the iPhone?
Steven Schopp, a New York-based developer who is working on iPhone gaming software, came up with the iPhone Application List to track the many new apps created every day. He says the Safari app-delivery model makes it "supereasy" for anyone to hop aboard the iPhone gravy train.
"It really opens up the iPhone to everyone with basic Web developer knowledge. Once you stick to Web standards on Safari, your app will work perfectly on the phone. This makes it so easy for anyone to get involved," Schopp says.
Still, the big question on everyone's mind is whether Apple will bite the bullet and release a full SDK so that more people can write native iPhone programs, much as it did with Cocoa, the object-oriented application environment designed specifically for building Mac OS X-only native apps.
Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at New York-based Jupiter Research, notes that most current iPhone programs are consumer focused and fill a very small niche; he also argues that the iPhone won't truly be a killer device until third-party applications can attack issues such as compatibility with Office documents, allowing the creation of Word or Excel files. "These things can be easily addressed with an SDK, but we'll have to wait to see what Apple decides to do," he adds.
Veteran developer Dave Winer, who bought an iPhone the day it hit retail shelves, isn't impressed with the Web-based application approach either. "How different the situation would be if the iPhone had a full SDK, if you could run Mac OS apps on the device, or if it had a built-in HTTP server that would allow you to browse or configure it over Wi-Fi from a Mac or Windows machine," Winer wrote on his widely read Scripting.com blog. "In other words, if it had the kind of revolutionary features and was an open platform in the tradition of Apple and the PC industry."
But could that level of openness be coming? Joe Hewitt, a software engineer who created the user interface rendering engine behind America Online's new AIM platform, believes Apple will give developers tools to tie Web utilities to different parts of the device, like the camera or the calendar app.
"They say they're going to focus on Web apps, and I believe this is going to be the main approach," says Hewitt, whose free tool iUI aids the creation of Web sites that look as if they belong on the iPhone.
Hewitt expects Apple to add Flash support to Mobile Safari, opening up the iPhone to gaming and video delivery. He also anticipates an offline caching utility similar to Google Gears so programs won't need constant connectivity.
The 451 Group's Zachary agrees that future iPhone updates--both to the firmware of the device and to revisions of the hardware--will find ways around the Web-delivery stumbling blocks, but he thinks it's inevitable that Apple will release an SDK to help build native iPhone software.
"Ideally, I think we'll see feature revisions with GPS to add location-based services. That will make online mapping apps much more effective. Right now, [Apple CEO Steve Jobs] is comfortable with Mobile Safari, but I think we'll see an SDK that allows native apps in some kind of sandbox to get around the security and stability fears," Zachary says.
"The guys who have dedicated their lives to building Mac apps are not going to do the Web paradigm. They will want to wait for an SDK before committing to any kind of iPhone development," he argues.
Web-based delivery could also limit iPhone application availability by making it harder for some developers to earn money with their creations.
Gartenberg believes that more native software and games will arrive, but that Apple will continue to work with a few select companies, as it has with Google and YouTube. "That's pretty much the model they've done with the iPod, where you can get third-party games, but only if you buy them directly from Apple. They're only working with select developers on those iPod games, and that's pretty much what they'll do with the iPhone," he says.
While selective development of native applications will continue--Steve Jobs has already promised an iPhone voice recorder--most of the action will be confined to Web-based applications. And that should be a good thing for mobile apps in general: Once a Facebook or a Netvibes runs on the iPhone, adapting it to operate on the next great mobile device becomes that much easier.