When the iPhone first shipped, I thought it was pretty cool that there wasn't a way for developers to write software for it. It forced people who wanted to build iPhone "apps" to create Web apps instead, which were then delivered to the iPhone via its browser. It was a great day for Webware.
But it couldn't really last. The Web is too slow, browsers too limited, AT&T's paranoia (about third-party apps running on their network) too Orwellian, and the iPhone too powerful to force developers to fit everything into Safari. Hence, Jailbreak hacks. And, finally, Apple's own version of a native software development kit (SDK) for the iPhone, announced today.
The iPhone SDK will allow developers to have access to the same cool hardware features built into the iPhone that Apple's own developers have, such as the multitouch interface and the iPhone's accelerometer. Apps can also talk to each other. For example, a Salesforce.com app can talk to the iPhone's built-in mapping app--an example discussed during the launch event for the SDK. Another example is an AIM app from AOL that supports multiple conversations that are easy to switch between.
The SDK also offers links into geolocation data, so developers can build native location-aware apps. The iPhone still doesn't have built-in GPS, relying instead of less-accurate Wi-Fi-based location, but this is a start.
So the iPhone (and also the iPod Touch) is becoming an Internet appliance, not just a Web browser. That's great. As we've seen with the release of Adobe AIR, you really can do more with online resources when you're not trying to squeeze the interface through the pipes. Hybrid apps--apps that use heavy local resources as well as relying on the Internet for data and community--make tons of sense, especially on mobile devices that are likely to move in and out of coverage areas. Once Google Gears gets up and running on the iPhone, we could see some really interesting apps that gracefully transition from connected to isolated.
Apple is leveraging the iTunes store to deliver apps to the phone. There will also be a new store, the iPhone-friendly App Store, that will handle the directories, downloads, and the collection of software licensing fees. Apple will keep 30 percent of all software purchase fees for itself (free apps can also be downloaded through the store). Most importantly, the store will be the only way to get apps (until it's hacked), and it won't be a free-for-all. Apple will not allow pornographic software and reserves the right to remove apps that pose security or privacy risks. So, the iPhone isn't a free-for-all apps platform like a personal computer. We'll see how well Apple manages to stay out of the way of developers, all of whom have to register with Apple (for $99) to deliver apps through the store.
The iPhone SDK doesn't blow the platform all the way open, in other words. Apple will be watching over the apps to make sure they all behave. Hopefully, they'll do a good job of it. And there will always be the Web for developers who want to attract iPhone users without getting permission first.
See CNET's iPhone page.