Wednesday, June 13, 2007

iPhone: Crippled Also-Ran or Clever Revolutionary?

In the wake of Steve Jobs' Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, there's been a firestorm of discussion regarding the lack of a 'true' SDK for the much-anticipated iPhone. Most of the negative feedback centers around the assertion that without the ability to write 'true' software apps for the iPhone, Apple is shutting out development of really useful apps. Instead, developers (and by extension, users) will have to make do with widgets- AJAX applications designed to execute in a browser running off information stored on servers.

The interactive experiences I invent are pretty much all browser based applications, so I come into this argument with a bias- but what truly interests me is not what I can get out of the iPhone. In this case, I'm more interested in the business perspective, and what this decision will do to the mobile platform in general.

In my work, I speak with interactive professionals who work in the mobile space, and their #1 complaint is the endless multiplicity of platforms they need to develop and deploy to. #2 is the management layer of the various carriers who control those platforms. As a result, it's a lot harder to gain a critical mass of users in the mobile application space than in the web space- there's no equivalent to making a quick Flash game and having it available to 90% of users overnight.

If you're a web designer, the situation is akin to their being fourteen different browsers you would have to build and test for- plus, these browsers operate differently for Yahoo! users, for AOL users, for MSN users, etc.

Despite its apparent popularity, the iPhone isn't going to change this situation overnight. Even Apple has stated they'd be happy with a 1% marketshare in 2008- that's not going to represent a market mover in terms of platforms.

Instead, I think what Jobs & Co. are doing is more subversive- they are democratizing the mobile application space. That's the core of the dismay we're hearing from developers- the flip side of their argument (they can't make real apps) is that AJAX apps are somehow fake. This is an echo of the old back end vs. front end non-argument that erupts all over the interactive industry map when web developers meet software engineers.

When all it takes is a copy of Dreamweaver, and O'Reilly book, and some copy and pasted Javascript to make a web app, we will see an explosion of single purpose widgets proudly proclaiming their iPhone compatibility. Most of these will be utter rubbish- and the message boards and ratings on Hotscripts and Versiontracker will serve to banish them into well deserved obscurity. However, some will be gems- as a frequent air traveler and motorcycle rider, I rely on the OS X Dashboard 'Radar In Motion' widget to predict whether I will be delayed or drenched. It is completely immaterial to me that this widget is just an HTML fragment and not a compiled blob of code- it does what I need it to do, elegantly and conveniently.

No matter how many Diggers cry foul, when Jobs stands up at Macworld San Francisco and proclaims that thousands of apps for the iPhone have been developed since launch, no consumer is going to care that they aren't 'real' apps. All they are going to care about is: Does this widget let me do something I couldn't do, or make something easier to do? I firmly believe that all the 'fake' developers need is imagination, insight and focus to supply that user experience, despite the sandbox Apple is making them play in.

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