How Far Can Web Apps Take the iPhone?Early apps let you Webcast baseball games, check gas prices, and network with friends, but true business software may require more than just Safari.
Pickleview, an app written during the three-day iPhoneDevCamp, lets you Webcast baseball games while chatting with other users.
Photograph by Marc Simon
Eager developers are already creating new Web-based applications for the iPhone (see some of our favorites on the last page), and high-profile sites like Facebook and Netvibes have gone a long way toward making themselves more iPhone friendly. But questions remain about how much the iPhone's current incarnation can really do and what that means for the future of mobile computing.
Citing security and reliability concerns, Apple opted against releasing a software development kit, or SDK, to allow the creation of native iPhone programs. Instead, Apple provided hooks to let developers access many of the iPhone's basic functions, such as sending e-mail, dialing a phone number, or tying into the embedded Google Maps through Apple's Safari browser. Ideally, developers would use those capabilities to build Web sites and apps that behave just as native iPhone programs do.
So how is the effort going so far? Just one week after Apple shipped the iPhone to droves of drooling early adopters, Richard Herrera traveled to Adobe's San Francisco office for iPhoneDevCamp, a three-day event where Web developers and designers brainstormed ideas for delivering applications to the shiny new device.
Just four hours into the first day, Herrera and three other developers he barely knew delivered Pickleview, an iPhone Web interface that shuttles real-time, interactive baseball scores from MLB.com to a live Twitter chat stream.
"When Apple said that any application fully compatible with Safari 3 would integrate perfectly with iPhone, I knew it would be real easy to build some fun apps," Herrera says. "It's only been a month [since the release of the iPhone], and I've seen some really interesting things being done."
While coders are still getting a handle on what they can and can't accomplish through Safari, impressive applications are already starting to emerge, and events like iPhoneDevCamp have produced some fun new features. But several developers believe that many serious business programs will require an SDK.
Raven Zachary, open-source research director for the technology-analysis company The 451 Group and one of the organizers of the iPhoneDevCamp, says he was blown away by some of the creations that came out of the development event.
"I saw a voting application that was motion controlled, where you could vote 'yes' if the iPhone was horizontal or 'no' if it was moved into a vertical position. That was neat," Zachary says. "Pickleview's interface was really impressive," he adds.
Other software coming out of the camp provides an early glimpse at what can be ported to mobile devices. Telekinesis, for example, turns the iPhone into a remote control device to access Mac OS X computers through a collection of mini Web applications on the phone. There's even an iPhone-specific social network called iRovr that offers MySpace-like functionality for groups of iPhone-using friends.
Some other ideas include Gas.App, which delivers gas prices based on an iPhone user's zip code; txtDrop, which provides free Web-based SMS on the device; iPhone My eBay, for bidding and tracking auctions in a customized iPhone interface; iChess, a touch-screen chess game by Australian developers who have never laid hands on an iPhone; and FlickIM, an AOL instant messaging chat tool designed for the iPhone.
Then there are "launchers," or app aggregators, Web sites that mimic the iPhone screen layout on the Web, giving iPhone users a way to easily access third-party apps without having to bookmark individual Web pages. Three launchers that have gained momentum are AppMarks, MockDock, and Mojits, each offering preloaded programs and the ability to add and delete apps from a single iPhone Web page.
Connect with your techno-hip friends on iRovr, the first iPhone-specific social network. Steven Schopp, a New York-based developer who is working on iPhone gaming software, came up with the iPhone Application List to track the many new apps created every day. He says the Safari app-delivery model makes it "supereasy" for anyone to hop aboard the iPhone gravy train.
"It really opens up the iPhone to everyone with basic Web developer knowledge. Once you stick to Web standards on Safari, your app will work perfectly on the phone. This makes it so easy for anyone to get involved," Schopp says.
Still, the big question on everyone's mind is whether Apple will bite the bullet and release a full SDK so that more people can write native iPhone programs, much as it did with Cocoa, the object-oriented application environment designed specifically for building Mac OS X-only native apps.
Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at New York-based Jupiter Research, notes that most current iPhone programs are consumer focused and fill a very small niche; he also argues that the iPhone won't truly be a killer device until third-party applications can attack issues such as compatibility with Office documents, allowing the creation of Word or Excel files. "These things can be easily addressed with an SDK, but we'll have to wait to see what Apple decides to do," he adds.
Veteran developer Dave Winer, who bought an iPhone the day it hit retail shelves, isn't impressed with the Web-based application approach either. "How different the situation would be if the iPhone had a full SDK, if you could run Mac OS apps on the device, or if it had a built-in HTTP server that would allow you to browse or configure it over Wi-Fi from a Mac or Windows machine," Winer wrote on his widely read Scripting.com blog. "In other words, if it had the kind of revolutionary features and was an open platform in the tradition of Apple and the PC industry."
But could that level of openness be coming? Joe Hewitt, a software engineer who created the user interface rendering engine behind America Online's new AIM platform, believes Apple will give developers tools to tie Web utilities to different parts of the device, like the camera or the calendar app.
"They say they're going to focus on Web apps, and I believe this is going to be the main approach," says Hewitt, whose free tool iUI aids the creation of Web sites that look as if they belong on the iPhone.
Hewitt expects Apple to add Flash support to Mobile Safari, opening up the iPhone to gaming and video delivery. He also anticipates an offline caching utility similar to Google Gears so programs won't need constant connectivity.
The 451 Group's Zachary agrees that future iPhone updates--both to the firmware of the device and to revisions of the hardware--will find ways around the Web-delivery stumbling blocks, but he thinks it's inevitable that Apple will release an SDK to help build native iPhone software.
"Ideally, I think we'll see feature revisions with GPS to add location-based services. That will make online mapping apps much more effective. Right now, [Apple CEO Steve Jobs] is comfortable with Mobile Safari, but I think we'll see an SDK that allows native apps in some kind of sandbox to get around the security and stability fears," Zachary says.
"The guys who have dedicated their lives to building Mac apps are not going to do the Web paradigm. They will want to wait for an SDK before committing to any kind of iPhone development," he argues.
Web-based delivery could also limit iPhone application availability by making it harder for some developers to earn money with their creations.
Gartenberg believes that more native software and games will arrive, but that Apple will continue to work with a few select companies, as it has with Google and YouTube. "That's pretty much the model they've done with the iPod, where you can get third-party games, but only if you buy them directly from Apple. They're only working with select developers on those iPod games, and that's pretty much what they'll do with the iPhone," he says.
While selective development of native applications will continue--Steve Jobs has already promised an iPhone voice recorder--most of the action will be confined to Web-based applications. And that should be a good thing for mobile apps in general: Once a Facebook or a Netvibes runs on the iPhone, adapting it to operate on the next great mobile device becomes that much easier.
Our Favorite Safari-Based iPhone Applications
Looking for a few new programs for your iPhone? These nine Safari-based gems (and one traditional Web site) are among our favorites:
iPhone Application List: Though it's short on iPhone-specific presentation, this iPhone Application List is the place to start.
Remote Access: Telekinesis gives you access to files, media, and more on systems running OS X.
On the Go: Gas.App helps you find the best gas prices in your zip code.
Games & Sports: Some favorites include an iPhone-ready Duck Hunt Clone and pickleview.com which lets you chat while watching live baseball scores.