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Cometh the hour, cometh the iPhone SDK

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Opinion Sing hosanna, etc. - the Software Development Kit for Apple's iPhone has finally arrived. Naturally it's being hailed as yet another breakthrough which will change the way in which we think of mobile phones, but in demanding monopoly control Apple may have taken a step too far.

"It exceeded all of my expectations," said Ken Aspeslagh of Ecamm Network, who we'd suggest has rather low expectations. He told Macworld that "this is the first time a mobile phone company has provided this kind of capability," suggesting a breathtaking ignorance of Palm/Symbian/Windows Mobile devices.

But eliciting positive quotes about Apple products is a bit like asking children for their view on Christmas; whatever you hear is going to be predictable and pretty much devoid of insight. A slightly closer look at what Apple is offering - and what it's not offering - might suggest it fails to meet the expectations of a few more people.

The iPhone Software Development Kit is free, which is nice, but hardly revolutionary; all the competing platforms have free development kits available, though most offer enhanced versions with more GUI control and debugging features. The iPhone kit is also Mac-only.

Apple is asking developers for a $99 annual fee if they want to sell their applications. Incredibly, this is being reported as a good thing, as it will cut out the chaff and ensure that only serious developers try to sell their work. Apple is right to surmise that anyone prepared to go through the process of developing a functional mobile application is probably willing to stump up a hundred dollars, though it may lose a fair bit of freeware that way on the principle of the thing - but the company isn't really interested in freeware, as it'll make no percentage distributing that.

Applications can only be sold, or supplied, through iTunes (though they can be downloaded directly to the device), and Apple is going to take 30 per cent of the sale price. 30 per cent sounds like a lot, but the existing duopoly of Motricity and Handango take between 40 and 50 per cent, so it's a very competitive figure. Motricity and Handango provide white-labelled services to networks too, where the percentage is split with the operator, but operators won't be able to sell iPhone software.

Smart phone application developers are currently able to play the duopoly off each other, and thus negotiate a reduced cut if their brand is big enough, but with Apple having the exclusive channel it's unlikely that the 30 per cent will be negotiable.

The other revenue stream for an application distributor is premium placement and advertising - no doubt iTunes will offer developers the opportunity to promote their packages. While there may be only one Chumbawamba there are many Tetris clones, so developers will be willing to pay to make sure they are at the top of the list. With only one distribution mechanism, it's hard to see how smaller developers can avoid disappearing behind the larger application brands.

The launch also provided some insight into what kinds of application Apple expects to see on the iPhone. When Steve Jobs was asked about VoIP software, he stated that VoIP over Wi-Fi would be fine, but any application that used VoIP over EDGE would not be permitted. So Apple isn't just going to restrict applications on the grounds of legality or taste (no pornography apparently), but will also refuse any which impinge on their business model, or the business models of their partners.

It seems hard to believe that operators will hand over their application sales revenue, or that customers will be happy to only buy applications that meet the taste and brand approval of Apple - or that developers will be content to only create apps that don't offend the Cupertino-based monopoly.

But then, I didn't believe European operators would be willing to hand over their call revenues, and Apple has proved that pretty colours will distract the punters while Apple not so much picks their pockets as copies the keys to their bank accounts. ®

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