Apple blinks on dev tool restrictions

Relaxed restrictions on cross-platform compilers may allow Flash apps on iPhone

Apple today reversed its decision earlier in the year that barred developers from using rival programming tools, including one that has since been discontinued by Adobe, to build applications for the iPhone , iPad and iPod Touch.

Developer tool makers rejoiced in the move, as one analyst said Apple was motivated because of the rapid rise of Android , Google's mobile operating system.

"It means 'full throttle' on the iOS platform," said Scott Schwarzhoff, an executive with Mountain View, Calif.-based Appcelerator.

Apple announced the change in a statement published on its Web site early Thursday.

"We are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code," the company said. "This should give developers the flexibility they want, while preserving the security we need."

Apple said it made "important changes" in three sections of its iOS SDK (software developer kit) license to "relax some restrictions we put in place earlier this year."

In April, Apple said it would not allow iOS developers to use third-party cross-platform compilers, tools that transform code for other systems -- as well as Java- and Flash-built software -- into native iPhone apps.

At the time, Apple's SDK spelled out what developers could and could not use. "Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs," the iOS SDK license read.

Apple's move was seen at the time by analysts and developers as a direct attack against Adobe, which had created a cross-platform compiler that took Flash applications and recompiled them to run natively on iOS. Adobe responded by tossing in the towel , dropping further work on "Packager," the cross-platform compiler included with Flash Professional CS5.

Adobe welcomed Apple's turn-about. "We are encouraged to see Apple lifting its restrictions on its licensing terms, giving developers the freedom to choose what tools they use to develop applications for Apple devices," an Adobe spokesman said.

Earlier this year, Apple and Adobe traded blows over Flash, with Apple CEO Steve Jobs saying iOS didn't need Adobe's software , an Adobe evangelist telling Apple to "Go screw yourself," and the co-chairs of Adobe's board of directors accusing Apple of undermining "the next chapter of the Web."

Today, Apple said it modified the SDK license after listening to developer feedback. "[We've] taken much of their feedback to heart," said Apple.

Some didn't buy that explanation.

"Clearly this is a response to competitive pressure," said Ray Valdes, an analyst with Gartner. "It's not in Apple's corporate DNA to be open or flexible. Usually, their behavior leans toward price control and opaqueness."

Google's Android mobile operating system, which has had no restrictions on what tools developers use, is challenging iOS' position, said Valdes. "And they're not the only one," he said. "Going forward, there may be other platforms, like Windows Phone 7, on smartphones and Chrome OS on tablets, that can compete with iOS."

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Valdes added that pressure from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) may have played a part in Apple's reversal. "There were possible regulatory aspects to this," Valdes maintained.

In May, reports surfaced that the FTC and DOJ were mulling a possible antitrust investigation of Apple after Adobe supposedly complained about the restrictive license. Adobe, the FTC and DOJ all declined comment at the time.

Makers of cross-platform compilers applauded Apple's decision today.

"Obviously this is great news, not just for us, but for everyone: developers, consumers and Apple itself," said Scott Schwarzhoff, vice president of marketing at Mountain View, Calif.-based Appcelerator, which sells a cross-platform compiler that lets Web developers recompile JavaScript and HTML applications into native iPhone code.

"It's a net-net win for everybody," Schwarzhoff added.

"We applaud this move by Apple," Nicholas Francis, co-founder and chief creative officer at Unity Technologies, which makes another cross-platform compiler that is widely used by iOS developers, said in an e-mail to Computerworld.

Schwarzhoff implicitly agreed with Gartner's Valdes that competition had a hand in Apple's 180-degree turn. "Consumers are putting their money in the marketplace, and making choices based on that," he said. "Apple's just responding to where those choices are being made."

Also today, Apple said it would publish its review guidelines for App Store submissions, a first. "We are publishing the App Store Review Guidelines to help developers understand how we review submitted apps," the company said. "We hope it will make us more transparent and help our developers create even more successful apps for the App Store."

"Apple saw that it was in its best interest to provide as much transparency as possible," said Schwarzhoff. "This was intentional, I think, and not a coincidence. It gives a one-two punch."

Developers have been calling on Apple to be more forthcoming about its App Store policies since the company launched its authorized application mart in 2008. Frustrated developers have often gone public when their software languished in the review process, or was rejected for reasons they didn't understand.

"Now, developers can use the tools they want, and know that their apps will be accepted," Schwarzhoff said.

In the interval between April's lockdown decision and today, Apple continued to approve applications built with Appcelerator's and Unity's tools, even while it wouldn't clarify its position. "We were in contact with Apple over the last four months, but they did not provide any clarification until today," said Schwarzhoff. "This will reinforce innovation from developers on iOS."

Adobe did not respond to questions whether Apple's change meant Adobe might resurrect Packager, its cross-platform compiler.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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