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Wednesday, August 06, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone App Store

The long wait for official third party apps on the iPhone is over. From the moment the original iPhone was released, critics complained about Apple's closed platform and insisted that it could not meet their definition of "smartphone" because it couldn't run software created by other companies. In this segment, we'll take a look at the Apple's iPhone software development kit, the App Store, and iPhone 2.0's third party apps themselves.

Inside iPhone 2.0 series outline and publication dates:

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Hardware (Last Thursday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones (Last Friday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Software (Monday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone OS vs. other mobile platforms (Tuesday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone App Store (Today)
Inside iPhone 2.0: MobileMe push messaging (Tomorrow)


The road to the iPhone SDK

Shortly before the release of the first iPhone, Apple announced a standards-based web platform for creating relatively simple, interactive web apps. Developers hoping to tap into the full power of the iPhone wept bitterly, although some took advantage of the web platform to deliver impressive or useful iPhone web apps, such as Facebook (below left) and the MuniTime NextBus client (below right), required in San Francisco because transit here operates with the frequency of a solar eclipse.

iPhone3G


For the next several months, the only way to add more significant applications to the iPhone was to "jailbreak" it, which worked around Apple's security features to enable other arbitrary code to be copied to the unit and run. However, jailbreaking the iPhone also complicated every software update, as Apple continuously made changes to its software and addressed general security holes that the jailbreak community had been exploiting to enable third party apps.

Jailbreak apps potentially undermine the security, reliability, and battery life of the iPhone, although Apple's own iPhone 2.0.0 software has done a bang up job of violating all of those things itself as well. Unofficial apps will likely continue to exist, in part because they do not require approval from Apple and therefore are not limited by the policies the company has set up to protect users, its partners, and the usability and reputation of the iPhone itself.

Most users will likely stick with those apps officially available through Apple's iTunes Apps Store because it's simply much easier and requires no diddling. Most developers are also going to be more interested in getting paid for their efforts than handing them out for free with complicated support instructions. Still, there are a variety of apps that are currently only available outside of Apple's official Apps Store, either because they directly access hardware in ways that are not supported by the official iPhone SDK (such as video recording, or the NES games console emulator) or because they offend Apple's policies, such as the NetShare tethering app that was pulled from the Apps Store, presumably due to contention with AT&T's mobile service agreement. 

The iPhone developer program

Apple's official iPhone software development kit (which also works with the iPod touch; we'll refer to it as the "iPhone SDK" just to make things simpler) supplies enhancements to the company's existing Xcode integrated development environment that allow developers to write, debug, test, optimize, and compile software that runs on both handhelds.

The tools work nearly identically to those used to develop applications for Mac OS X, which is no surprise because the iPhone OS and its development frameworks are a fraternal twin birthed from the same corporate womb. The main difference is that while Apple does not limit anyone from churning out Mac OS X apps, it has taken steps to prevent open distribution of iPhone apps; they're officially only available via iTunes and through the Apps Store on the iPhone itself.

In order to get apps into Apple's official store for distribution, developers must apply for participation in Apple's iPhone developer program, pay a nominal $99 fee, and submit their applications to Apple for approval. Apple gets to approve (and revoke) all apps in its store, and takes a 30% cut of the proceeds in consideration for marketing and handling the distribution and billing of all iPhone software.

iPhone SDK vs. other smartphone platforms

This has raised considerable ire from pundit critics who have tried to suggest that the iPhone SDK was a draconian plot dreamed up by Steve Jobs to deprive users of free software and profiteer upon the backs of participating programmers. Those critics were apparently unaware of the fees charged by every other smartphone development program on Earth, as well as the common understanding that mobile devices simply can't reliably or securely run software from unknown, untrusted sources.

The PC desktop is a malware mess because it's simply too easy to distribute malicious (or incompetent) code, and there's no real way for users to trust software they find. While Apple gained lots of attention for its efforts to deploy mandatory certificate signing on all iPhone software, every other reputable mobile platform vendor is also trying to deliver the same thing. They just charge developers more while offering them less in terms of marketing and merchandizing than Apple does.

For example, Microsoft charges Windows Mobile developers closer to $500 to participate, and then takes half of their revenues. Developers can also take their Windows Mobile apps to other mobile software distribution stores, but Microsoft's recommended Handango takes at least 40%, and expects larger developers to pay it 60 to 70% of their revenues. Most other online mobile software distributors charge developers around 50% of their revenues to sell their work for them.

RIM, Symbian, Java, and Qualcomm's BREW all have their own certificate signing programs, which cost more to get started with, are more complicated and expensive to use in signing apps, and frequently involve high testing fees that can in some cases approach $1000 per application submitted. Apple does not charge any additional fees on a per app basis.

Instead, Apple has set up its iTunes software store to merely pay its own way, following the same strategy that made reasonably-priced audio and video content available for the iPod and the Mac. Apple operates its iPhone software store as a tool to foster high quality, low cost apps for the iPhone so users will have additional reasons to buy Apple's hardware. Company executives have even expressly stated that they do not run the store with the goal of making big profits on software sales.

Apart from RIM's BlackBerry and Danger's Sidekick (now owned by Microsoft), most mobile platform vendors do not share Apple's hardware-centric business model and therefore have to pay for their operating system development and platform maintenance by charging developers lots of fees. That's bad for developers, and in turn impacts end users with higher prices.

The iPhone Apps Store

Using the iTunes Store to deliver iPhone apps is both clever and convenient, as most iPod users already have an account and are familiar with how it should work. You can buy apps individually or in an iTunes shopping spree using a cart. If you buy apps through the Apps Store app (below left and middle) on the phone itself, you have to enter your iTunes password for each new transaction (below right), which is pretty much identical to the process for browsing and buying other media from the iPhone's WiFi Store.

iPhone3G


If an app is marked as mature, you are also somewhat comically warned "this product contains material that may be objectionable to children under 17" (below left). We found this warning while downloading iPint, a free mini-game that involves sliding a beer down a bar to your friend (below middle), and then pretending to fill up your iPhone's screen with beer so you can pretend to drink it in celebration (below right).

iPhone3G


On page 2 of 3: This just in: software updates; Early adopter app kinks; What you can expect from third party apps; and How much does it cost?