Think twice about iPhone development
Inside the mobile matrix, part 3
In this, the third and final installment in our series looking at a trio of potential, new mobile development platforms, I'm going to focus on what I view as the real dark horse in this race: the iPhone.
Why is the iPhone a dark horse? Because, at the time of writing, for a device with so much potential and "cool" about it relatively little is known about what can be done with platform from a development perspective.
Questions remain about nearly every aspect of official iPhone development, from licensing to physical layer access, to how much of the current unofficial developer force will migrate their efforts over to the official release versus continuing on their current path developing for jailbroken iPhones.
Talking telephone numbers
If you're a developer looking for an addressable market, then the level of coverage surrounding the iPhone is a good thing. The iPhone was the subject of one of the industry's largest and most aggressive PR campaigns.
Unless you've been plane wrecked on a desert island with no radio, no TV, and without even a single magazine washing up, then as Fake Steve Jobs put it so eloquently: "Dude, I invented the friggin' iPhone. Have you heard of it?"
This is potentially good news for developers. As in my last two mobile assessments one of our primary questions you should ask prior to choosing a platform relates to the installed user base you feel is likely to want to use the application you've created. As of October, 1.1 million Americans owned iPhones, with the device becoming the US's fourth best selling mobile phone for the third quarter.
Further figures are not available, partly because Apple has placed a gagging order on carriers releasing data. The goal was, though, for 1.4 million units sold by end of year, suggesting that either numbers have not been met or that Apple only wants SteveO to deliver the "surprise" market share stats during his Macworld keynote speech in San Francisco, California, this week.
Additionally, we also know large numbers of people were content to shell huge amounts of cash for their iPhone and calling plans, and many proceeded to put that hardware at risk by hacking the devices to run an ever increasing number of third-party applications created by "black hat" developers that have - to this point - confounded Apple and its US wireless carrier of choice, AT&T.
All signs, then, indicate not just the popularity of the iPhone, but also keenness among developers to experiment with the device and a hunger among end users for iPhone applications.
iPhone hang ups
It's not all good news, though. The huge amount of uncertainty that surrounds the iPhone and Apple's attempt to rigidly control the environment are facts that should cause any developer to think twice before committing.
From mighty SAP to the tiniest software vendor, all have had their wings clipped running native applications on the iPhone or been forced to needlessly re-work applications to make them run in the Safari browser.
Staff from other ISVs - REAL Software and Opera - have spoken about support for the iPhone (REAL Basic and the Opera browser for the iPhone, respectively), but - officially at least - the companies are making no public commitments to the device.
For those who did the unthinkable and pressed ahead regardless, Apple rather helpfully released a firmware update that appeared to have been engineered to specifically render hacked phones useless turning them into iBricks.
The struggle continues. Developers appear to have maintained the upper hand as they have consistently been capable of improving upon their original efforts thereby restoring functionality of bricked phones. They have also done so regularly and with such increasing rapidity that they are very nearly current with the releases of phone firmware upgrades.
Betting one's time, money and business on outwitting Apple won't be to everyone's tastes, however.
If you can get past that, arguably the biggest unknown is the planned iPhone SDK itself and how much power and flexibility it provides. If it turns out to be too structured (hampering creativity) or the terms too restrictive (hampering financial gain) it is highly likely developers that have already met with success doing it their own way will continue to operate without Apple.
This, of course, sets the scene for more friction with Apple and the potential emergence of an unofficial iPhone development community, which is unsupported by Apple and that constantly has its firmware reset.
Additionally, if the SDK is restrictive, then it makes it much more likely the people currently using the applications these developers have created will stand by the programmers that have done right by them so far.
The good news here is you don't have to jump into iPhone development right away. You can take a wait-and-see approach and even get your feet wet writing simple applications. Or you can code for the dark side of the phone - the jailbroken version. If things look good for the SDK gaining momentum then you could make the switch at any time.
Probably the best news is you have lots of options in mobile development in general. There has never been a better time to start developing for mobile. There are more viable platforms, more people with high-end phones, greater network capabilities, more high-speed networks and of course more money to be made in mobile than ever.
Symbian and Microsoft clearly dominate the pack, however the purpose of this mini series has been to look at possible new contenders. In the first two articles, I looked at OpenMoko's Neo1973 and Google's Android. I would go with Android if I were forced to choose just a single new platform today.
Google has more momentum than any company in technology at the moment, has rallied a powerful group of companies around the concept to help development and promotion, and it is highly likely that Google and its partners will blend their collected experience to make the web and the mobile web more interactive - and arguably more open - than before via Android.
Admittedly, it is tempting to focus on Apple. The device is a potential game changer with some amazing capabilities that open up the imagination to what is possible on the phone. Still, many important questions remain to be answered before I'd feel secure in focusing on the iPhone as my principal development choice.
As for the Neo1973, that really runs a distant third thanks to the terms of licensing and relatively low-level of industry support. To be honest I don't think it merits serious consideration when compared to Android or the iPhone.
Probably, the safest bet is to focus on Android primarily but educate yourself on the iPhone SDK so you can develop for that platform if, and when, things become clearer further down the road.®
Additional reporting by Gavin Clarke
Oliver Starr is an entrepreneur, analyst and writer covering wireless and telecoms with more than 15 years’ experience. Oliver is currently the global editor for mobile at OWStarr.com and founder and CTO of consultant Quantum Mechanic's Group.