A development kit for the iPhone is not going to make the hackers shut up shop, writes Claudine Beaumont
Last week, Apple finally unveiled details of the software development kit that will allow people to write applications for the iPhone and the iPod touch.
The kit, known as an SDK, is already available for developers to work with, and iPhone users will get their first chance to download these Apple-sanctioned applications when the iPhone 2.0 software is released in June.
Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, must hope that providing a development platform for iPhone fans will prevent people from hacking their devices and installing applications on to the phone by nefarious means. Part of the reason the iPhone has been so avidly hacked is that it runs a stripped-back version of Apple's powerful OS X operating system, and tech geeks have been desperate to unleash what they see as the phone's latent computing potential. There's also been an appreciation, even among the most ardent Apple fans, that the iPhone lacks features considered standard on other handsets, such as instant-messaging capabilities, the ability to collect and read RSS feeds, and currency conversion tools.
The SDK will - in theory - give developers a rich set of tools to develop software that makes the best of the iPhone's most innovative features, such as its touch screen, and the three-way accelerometer that can sense when you flip the phone between portrait and landscape formats.
In practice, however, Apple will be in total control of apps. Programs will be distributed through the iTunes music store, and must be approved by Apple before they can be sold.
The iPhone will remain a tightly controlled platform. It's a far cry from the "homebrew" community of program-makers who create software for hacked iPhones - one of whom has even come up with a tool that allows people to play old Nintendo NES games on their iPhones.
Apple has softened the blow slightly by allowing developers to set their own prices for their programs, and to keep 70 per cent of the sales revenue, with the remainder going towards running the App Store area of iTunes. But many technology fans, as well as amateur and professional developers, are disappointed by the shackles on the platform. It's like giving a child the keys to a sweet shop and then telling them they can't touch anything.
"Apple is betting its future in the smartphone market on a control-freak business model," says Information Week's Mitch Wagner. "Developers might decide that Apple's business model is too much hassle and give their business to competitors instead. And Apple needs third-party developers to ensure the ongoing success of the iPhone."
One of the key problems is the lack of clarity about what Apple will and won't allow on iPhones. It has already said it won't distribute programs that can be considered pornographic, malicious, illegal, or which would hog bandwidth. But what about programs that compete directly with parts of Apple's business? Would Amazon be able to build an application for the iPhone that makes it easy for people to buy DRM-free music from its store? Will the Last.fm streaming service be welcome? It's not entirely clear, and Apple is being as tight-lipped as ever about such issues.
"The Apple SDK, as many have come to find, has arguably crippled much of the functionality that set the iPhone apart when first released," says blogger Jonathan Zdziarski, in response to the news this week that applications developed for the iPhone won't be able to run in the background while you use other features. If you receive a phone call halfway through an instant-messaging chat, the IM session will be automatically closed.
It will be impossible to judge the shrewdness of Apple's decision to limit the scope of the SDK until the new iPhone software is launched in June. But what is clear is that with new, open-source mobile phone platforms such as the Google-backed Android gaining a head of steam and showing early promise, Apple will have to ensure its development program fosters creativity rather than stifles it.
Otherwise, people will just keep on hacking their iPhones to get their phone, their way. You might not realise it, but Microsoft and Apple have a very close working relationship, particularly when it comes to developing the Microsoft Office suite for the Mac computing platform.
Microsoft has just released Office 2008 for Mac, and to celebrate, we have several copies of the software to give away, as well as a new MacBook laptop computer.
Office 2008 for Mac provides a rich creative environment for all your word processing, presentation and email-based tasks. The user interface is simple and streamlined, with a clean, simple look and feel that makes it really easy to use. Microsoft has added a host of clever new features, including Document Elements, a one-click gallery that helps users to build professional-looking documents simply, while Entourage, Office for Mac's email program, now has a new My Day feature to help you organise and manage your time more effectively.
For your chance to win a copy of Office 2008 for Mac and a new MacBook, answer this question: Who is the chairman of Microsoft?
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