Steve Jobs locks up the iPhone

The Apple CEO's new plan to add third-party programs to his new phone disappoints people hoping for a fully functional pocket computer.

Published June 11, 2007 7:39PM (EDT)

Everyone's expecting Steve Jobs to focus on upgrades to the Mac OS during his presentation kicking off Apple's developer conference in San Francisco this morning. A few pre-conference rumors suggest he'll be putting out a sleeker version of the iMac, too, but among the milling journos outside the convention hall, the story doesn't hold much water. Nothing Jobs does seems small or ordinary -- he could probably hype up a visit to the dentist -- but considering all that'll soon happen with his company (iPhone, June 29), expectations here are relatively small. Thing is, Jobs doesn't even really meet those.

Jobs' big announcement, saved for the very end of his hour-and-a-half talk, is that Apple will open up the iPhone to third-party programs -- that is, to programs made by companies other than Apple. Programmers have been wondering about this for some time; Jobs said a couple of weeks ago that Apple was figuring out a way to allow the iPhone to run other apps without causing the phone to crash or compromising AT&T's network. But the solution he unveiled here comes as a big letdown: Apple won't let non-Apple-approved software run directly on the phone.

Instead, he says, people can create iPhone applications for the Web, and then run those programs within Safari, iPhone's built-in Web browser. These iPhone Web apps will have access to some of iPhone's features -- you can make a call from a program built for Safari on iPhone, for instance -- but probably not all its features. Under this compromise, it's unclear if third-party apps would be able to use all of the iPhone's graphics, network or storage capacities. Could you run a version of Skype on the iPhone? Could developers create a jukebox app for iPhone that competes with iTunes? What about a photo-editing program? And what about Firefox on Safari?

Speaking at the D conference the other day, Jobs himself argued that programs that run natively on a machine are always going to be more functional than programs that run on the Web. He pointed to Google's Maps program as an example, saying that the Maps app developed for the iPhone beats Google Maps on the Web. But now he seems to be saying that only big companies like Google may be allowed to create such privileged programs. To run on iPhone, everyone else must stick to the Web. It's possible to make too much of this, of course -- and things could change, certainly -- but for an otherwise receptive crowd of developers here, the iPhone announcement elicited not much enthusiasm. Mostly, there was silence when Jobs went over this scheme.

Jobs' other big announcement is related to the iPhone news, and if this were any other time for Apple, it would take the lead today. Apple has just created a Windows version of the Safari Web browser. (You can download it here.) According to a couple of benchmark tests he runs, the new Safari is faster than either Firefox or Internet Explorer on Windows; it renders Web pages in half the time as IE. Apple's plan here is clear: Now that Safari will be the default programming platform for iPhone, releasing it to Windows puts all iPhone apps on Windows too.

Most of today's presentation has been occupied by peeks at Leopard, the version of Mac OS X that Apple will release in October. But even here there isn't much that's awesome. Jobs has demonstrated many of these features before: Time Machine, a cool new way to back up your Mac; Spaces, which lets you set up multiple desktops on your machine; special effects for videoconferencing in iChat; and a new Dashboard widget called WebClip that lets people create new widgets from any Web page. At Macworld in January, Jobs said that Mac OS contained several other "top secret" features, but the new ones he has put up here look more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The Mac's desktop is slightly redesigned in Leopard, with a more transparent menu bar and a kind of three-dimensional dock for launching programs. There's a feature called Stacks that collapses a collection of objects into a single button in the dock -- hit the button and the stuff springs up like a Jack-in-the-box, your icons easily on display. Jobs also showed off the way Leopard handles 64-bit applications and a programming interface called Core Animations that that lets developers build cooler-looking programs. Folks here generally approved of all these. I counted seven and a half big "oohs" from the crowd (one of the features in iChat elicited a mini-ooh).

And then there was one other little thing. As Scott Forstall, Apple's V.P. of iPhone software, showed off the phone onstage, he tried to type in a name and hit the wrong key. Let me see "if I can type here today as I shake onstage," he said in a quick recovery. It was a nothing moment. But a few wags have been wondering if the iPhone's on-screen keyboard will be its downfall. So you have to wonder: Is an Apple exec's typo pregnant with portent?

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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