Apple opens the iPhone to outside developers


Published October 17, 2007 10:04PM (EDT)

Steve Jobs has spoken: Apple will finally allow third-party developers to create programs for the iPhone. Hooray!

The news came today from the CEO himself. He posted a short note to the company's Web site that begins, "Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers' hands in February."

An SDK is a software developers kit, a set of tools to allow programmers to hook into the iPhone. Right now, Apple prohibits third-party developers -- that is, people who don't work at Apple or companies with special relationships to Apple, like Google -- from making programs that run on the iPhone. Instead, developers can only make programs for the Web, which can then run on the iPhone's Safari Web browser.

To say that this setup has been less than ideal would be an understatement on the order of calling Ellen DeGeneres' dog situation merely sad (it is, in truth, a national tragedy).

Restricting iPhone development to the Web shut out the iPhone's most amazing aspects to developers -- you couldn't add competing browsers (e.g., Firefox), or network applications like Skype, or apps that take advantage of the iPhone's accelerometer or its processor or many of its other features.

Developers did, of course, figure out a way to go around Apple restrictions and build a number of interesting apps for the iPhone -- but then Apple issued an update to the device that put the kibosh on that whole enterprise (the update removed third-party app support and broke some people's phones).

Jobs says now that the company is working on a way to add support for third-party programs while also preventing malicious code -- viruses, etc. -- from hijacking people's iPhones. How will it do that?

He doesn't say, but Jobs makes positive comments about using digital signatures. In this scheme, a central signing authority would approve people's apps, allowing only safe ones to work on the phone. Jobs says, "We are working on an advanced system which will offer developers broad access to natively program the iPhone's amazing software platform while at the same time protecting users from malicious programs."

There is an obvious downside to digital signing: It would require a signer -- presumably Apple, which would then act as the arbiter of what is and is not allowed on your iPhone.

And would Apple want you to use, say, a competitor's music store application on your iPhone? Maybe yes, considering that it does let you run a competing OS -- Windows -- on your Mac. But also, maybe not. We don't know.

And there's another question: Would Apple ask developers -- and users -- for a cut of third-party app sales, in much the same way that video game makers get a licensing fee from the sale of third-party games? Again, we don't know.

Jobs acknowledges that such a scheme is "less than 'totally open,'" but he says that it's necessary. "We think a few months of patience now will be rewarded by many years of great third party applications running on safe and reliable iPhones," he concludes. And one more thing: Third-party apps will also run on the iPod touch, he says.

I've long criticized Jobs for closing off the iPhone from the creativity of outside programmers. Even if it's half a loaf, I'm glad he's offering an SDK. "Hooray!" is all there is to say.

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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