Ten Questions I Still Have About iPhone Software

Apple answered a lot of questions about iPhone apps today. But its announcement also left me wondering about a bunch of things.

Some Apple press events are full of surprises. Others are...surprisingly dull. Friday's iPhone software event was one of the few that was neither of the above. The news involved a lot of things that were not shocking-in some cases because of leaks in the last few days, and in some cases because they simply made sense. (Even the implementation of Microsoft's ActiveSync on the iPhone is just so darn logical that it felt natural and obvious.) But in this case, the obvious was also exciting.

Which is why I came away mostly enthusiastic about the day's news and the future of this platform. Even the most controversial aspect of all this-that Apple wants to be the only distributor of native iPhone apps-seems more good than bad given that the App Store looks to be by far the best software delivery system ever devised for a mobile device. An awful lot of iPhone users are going to want applications of all sorts, and they're going to go to the App Store to get them. If I were a software developer, I'd be champing at the bit to reach 'em that way, not grumbling that I can't sell software directly. (On the other hand, I presume that third-party phone software resellers like Handango are bummed out by the prospect of being denied access to the iPhone ecosystem.

So twelve hours after the event ended, I'm...happy. Even though I don't own an iPhone. I do have a question or two about all this, though. Ten of them, actually:

1. Where was Microsoft? Today's event included a parade of representatives from other companies – EA, Salesforce.com, AOL, Epocrates, Sega-applauding the day's news. But the most surprising development to come out of the event was fact that Apple is building support for Microsoft's ActiveSync into the iPhone-and no Microsoft exec graced the stage. There wasn't even a slide of enthusiastic boilerplate support from the behemoth of Redmond. Did Apple not want Microsoft there? Did Microsoft not want to be there? I dunno. But it's always a little uncomfortable when Apple and Microsoft jump into bed together. (Remember Bill Gates getting booed during Jobs's 1997 Macworld Expo keynote?)

2. What, no iChat? The iPhone's SMS application looks like the Mac's iChat, but it's texting, not instant messaging. Until today, I was assuming-or at least hoping – that it would evolve into a full-blown IM client. But today's event involved AOL showing an AIM client. It looked pretty good, but is it a sign that Apple has no plans to roll out real iChat for the iPhone, a move which would effectively render AIM for the iPhone redundant? Or maybe AIM for iPhone is a placeholder while Apple works on iPhone? That doesn't make sense, though, given that the whole point of today's AIM demo was that AOL was able to put the app together in a couple of weeks. I'm having trouble reading the tea leaves here...

3. What'll be prohibited? When Steve Jobs explained that all third-party native iPhone apps would be distributed exclusively through Apple, he said that it wouldn't permit everything, listing porn, privacy-invading apps, and bandwidth hogs as examples of software that would be a no-go. Later, in answer to questions from the audience, he said that VoIP would be permitted only over Wi-Fi, not over the cell network, and that (surprise!) iPhone-unlocking apps would be taboo. But I'd love to know what other programs won't make the grade. "Bandwidth hog" covers a lot of ground, potentially, including many apps that compete with Apple's own iTunes Store media offerings. (Then again, maybe nobody will find it worthwhile to compete with Apple when it comes to core iPod functions) A BitTorrent-over-cell client would likely be forbidden. But how about a BitTorrent-over-Wi-Fi one? How about Slingbox's mobile player or other TV streaming applications?

4. How will companies know if their programs are verboten? Sounds like nobody will bother to write porn, spyware, VoIP-over-cell, or unlocking apps under the assumption that Apple will distribute them. But how about, say, a photo-sharing app which might or might not be unacceptably piggy from a bandwidth standpoint? Will anybody write useful and interesting apps and then discover it's impossible to get them to customers?

5. Will anyone figure out how to distribute iPhone apps without going through Apple? Probably. Will Apple do its damnedest to make it hard, possibly through software updates that obstruct any alternate routes onto the phone or which disable apps that have snuck their way there already? Probably.

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Harry McCracken

PC World (US online)
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