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Palm releases Mojo SDK for Pre/WebOS development


Palm announced today that its new Software Development Kit for the Pre is now available to all interested app developers, following an early access program that has been limited to a few Palm partners since April.

The company has rushed to ready the Pre's SDK, which allows developers to write Pre applets based on web-standards, in order to catch up to the mobile software-oriented success Apple's iPhone has experienced over the past year since the release of the iPhone 2.0 SDK.

Once developers complete their Palm Pre applets, they'll have to wait for the Palm App Catalog to go online later this fall, according to a statement released on the company's official blog.

The SDK Catch-22

Palm Pre's limited sales currently do not offer developers much of an installed base to target, causing the same Catch-22 problem that plagues Android development: few phone sales provide scant demand for apps, while the few available apps provide less reason for consumers to choose the platform.

Apple skirted the classical problem of installed base vs. development interest in the iPhone by initially launching the iPhone as closed to third party development in the same manner as the iPod.

After its first year of sales, Apple could boast an installed base of six million users to attract developers; once apps went on sale, Apple sold nearly seven million more iPhone 3G models in that quarter and another eight million over the next two quarters. The iPod touch is also compatible with iPhone software, providing an installed base currently over 40 million devices.

Jury still out on Mojo SDK

One difference between the iPhone SDK and Palm's Mojo SDK that may help Palm is that Pre software is built using web standards (JavaScript, CSS, and HTML), which are already familiar to a large audience of potential developers. Palm isn't forcing developers to learn another new, complex and unfamiliar programming environment.

Software for the iPhone is built using Cocoa, which is familiar to Mac developers but requires some adjustment for anyone who hasn't ever worked with the Objective C language, Apple's development frameworks and Xcode tools. The iPhone's popularity and vibrant mobile software market have made the issue irrelevant for most coders, but a new platform lacking Apple's installed base would have a much harder time attracting interest.

One of the aspects that helped to kill interest in Apple's Newton MessagePad in the 90s was its radically novel and partially unfinished development environment; at that time, Apple didn't have the sales numbers to overcome the steep learning curve.

While Palm's Mojo should be naturally approachable to many web-savvy developers, there has not yet been enough discussion of the new SDK's quality and completeness to judge whether it will enable Pre developer to be highly productive yet. Simply having an SDK doesn't mean everything will work flawlessly.

It also doesn't mean the Pre can offer the same types of applications as those that run on the iPhone and iPod touch. One of the most popular segments of the iPhone catalog are games, but the Pre isn't designed to be a strong games platform. Instead, it presents simpler applets that work more like Dashboard widgets, allowing users to quickly switch between them.

Palm Mojo vs other platforms

Somewhat like Mojo, Google's Android platform is also based on a familiar development concepts, specifically Java and a byte code interpreter that works a lot like the standard JVM used in other smartphone and desktop Java development. Even so, the Android SDK has been criticized for lacking features common to standard Java, and other underlying deficiencies.

Depending on how well Palm has done on its own SDK, the company could attract more attention than Android, particularly if Android continues to be limited to a random phone or two, and especially if Palm chooses to license its WebOS software platform to other manufacturers, or can stay alive long enough to deliver a variety of devices for the market itself.

RIM's BlackBerry has had a Java-based SDK available since 2001, but that hasn't resulted in a rich variety of mobile software. Finding, installing and using BlackBerry software has remained difficult enough so that relatively few users buy or download apps.

After Apple announced iPhone 2.0, RIM announced nearly an identical set of catch up features at its BlackBerry Developer Conference, although the company's development efforts are split between the various models, such as the Bold and Storm. Interestingly, the best selling app for BlackBerry at the CrackBerry App Store is iBerry, a theme for making RIM's phones look more like Apple's.

Palm's historically strong position in the business market, despite having waned along with the company's fortunes, does provide the company with the opportunity to take on RIM on its home turf. Whether the Mojo SDK will offer developers the tools to deliver stronger and more cohesive (there's currently only one Pre model) solutions than RIM's Java-based BlackBerry SDK remains to be seen.

The Palm Mojo SDK is available at Palm webOSdev.