How Open Will Apple Go With iPhone SDK Launch?

If Apple continues to keep a tight rein on the types of applications that can be run on the iPhone, analysts suggest the company will miss a big opportunity.
Apple is set to outline its iPhone Software Road Map this week, which is expected to include information on the long-awaited iPhone software development kit. But developers are wondering how many of the iPhone's secrets they'll be able to access.

Since the release of the iPhone last June, software developers and would-be enterprise users have thirsted for a way to create "native" applications for the sleek and popular device, as opposed to Web-based applications that run on the device's Safari browser.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs unleashed a chorus of raspberries from the developer community prior to the iPhone launch when he crowed about the application development environment his company would provide: "And so you can write amazing Web 2.0 and Ajax apps that look and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone, and these apps can integrate perfectly with iPhone services," Jobs told a roomful of developers at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. The new mobile phone, Jobs added, would have "a very sweet solution" for creating and running third-party applications.

So far, developers have been largely unimpressed. Now, with the release of the SDK, that attitude has shifted toward a more positive outlook.

"We're excited about [the SDK release]," said Frank Mahdavi, chief strategy officer of MIR3, a provider of notification and broadcast-messaging software to businesses, "and we intend to take full advantage of it."

The question is just what the SDK will comprise. If Apple, as has been its wont in the past, keeps a tight rein on the types of applications that can be run on the iPhone, the depth of integration with the Macintosh operating system the device runs, and the way the applications are distributed, it could "miss a big opportunity," according to Chris Silva, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"The possibilities are really endless depending on how deep the SDK lets developers get into the platform," said Silva. On the other hand, "Any overzealous approach in barring the number of applications from the iPhone, an overly conservative form of the SDK, could harm the potential of bringing these devices more deeply into the enterprise by expanding the software available for them."

Many developers, like push e-mail provider Visto Software, already have taken advantage of the iPhone's powerful Safari browser to create versions of their applications for the device. Those apps are limited, however, by not being able to fully engage with the rich native environment and capabilities the iPhone comes with.

"Apple has done a terrific job of enabling the [out-of-the-box] applications on the device to talk to each other, such as the calendar and e-mail and the mapping functionality and so forth," said Matthew Parks, director of product management at Visto. "Enabling third-party vendors to also take advantage of those capabilities will be key to extending the success for people like us."

Ultimately, how open and how accessible Apple chooses to make the SDK will largely determine not only how the iPhone -- to date a wildly popular consumer device -- fares in business environments, but also how it will be embraced by software developers in general.

"A lot of developers are going to be watching this announcement, to see if the cost of development is low and if Apple is committing to helping them grow their business," said Carmi Levy, senior VP for strategic consulting at AR Communications. "If those messages aren't there, they'll yawn and wait for something else."

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