Apple Spurs Innovation with iPhone OS 3.0
Whether they're veteran code-pushers or new dabblers, the relative simplicity of the platform and access to tools -- along with new hooks such as location tagging -- are giving us some kick-ass, diverse stuff. Ocarina, SSH tools, GPark, Trism and countless other apps have already rotated through my first-generation 4MB iPhone. With some 50,000 companies and individuals registered now in the iPhone Developer Program -- and over 25,000 choices in the App Store -- I may need to dig out some cash to buy a model with room to grow -- especially once all the new apps envisioned Tuesday hit the market this summer.
And still, there's so much more that can be done.
Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone software, talked up what's new for developers at Tuesday's event in San Francisco: 1,000 new APIs. Even as a consumer, I can see it's the developers that really make this more than a phone, though I wonder whether all those new APIs might make developing for the iPhone -- and the iPod Touch -- more complicated, no matter how great the tools are.
Apple's decision to give developers the option of selling through subscriptions, offering not only the app but new content or new game levels within the app, opens up countless new business models -- and new ways into my wallet. A newspaper might actually be able to make money offering an app that serves as a gateway to iPhone-optimized content delivered fresh. Urban guides could sell per-city content.
Peer-to-peer sharing is on the way, too. Remember being able to "zap" business card info across early PDAs? This looks like it could do it, but I'm not sure why it's done via Bluetooth; the Nintendo DS can play peer-to-peer over WiFi. I can see a lot of iPhone gamers connecting randomly on Bay Area public transport for a quick game.
Being able to control and send data to accessories is another big step forward. Forstall mentioned medical devices that send data straight to doctors, something that could facilitate the digitization of medical records. Or it could put an iPhone in the hands of warehouse, medical, retail and other workers who now use bulkier and heavier tablet PCs. Push notification has been a sticky point for the iPhone. Corporate types can't be bothered to check e-mail on a regular basis, so companies like the push model. But Apple didn't want to deal with an 80% loss in standby time, so it waited until it could solve the problem elegantly. If Apple's push plans live up to the promise held out Tuesday, another enterprise reservation about the iPhone is gone. There's still the issue of Apple not allowing apps to run in the background -- Public Radio won't continue streaming audio if you go to check your mail. Yes, it can be a battery drain, but some apps have a reasonable need to process data in the background.
Tuesday's news wasn't all about the developers. We're finally getting cut-and-paste. It's one of the things a lot of people have wanted most. It's a difficult user-interface problem to solve; tapping, dragging and other gestures already do something in most iPhone apps. The planned double-tap to bring up copy-and-paste tools might work, though I can see some problems in real-life use. You can't customize how quick or long a pause defines a double tap, so a lot of people may need to boost their finger dexterity.
Given that it will work across all apps and is built into the API set, we'll manage.
Also finally coming; MMS messaging; Exchange support in the iPhone's Calendar app; voice memos; CalDAV support; and Spotlight search. We'll have to see how well Spotlight adapts to the iPhone's UI and its memory/processor limitations; it already has enough UI trouble in the regular Mac OS X. But searching across your iPod content will be cool, even if you still can't ask it, "You know that song that goes like this?"
For the developers, 1,000 APIs. For users, 100 new features and countless new apps to come. Apple isn't just answering the desires of developers, though this update will do that in a lot of ways. It also shows that Apple has found the sweet spot of making its success dovetail with developers' success. Apple takes 30% from each App Store sale, so its own best interest is in opening up the creativity of the group mind. Everybody gets something cool, everybody profits.
What an insanely great idea.
Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications including Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.