What exec wouldn't love to have an army of unpaid workers cranking out improvements to their product on the off chance that they may make some money — or get a little glory? Steve Jobs, of course. But despite Apple's stand, independent developers are poring over the beta of iPhone 3.0, speculating about the new hardware and getting ready to add useful (and sometimes just playful) hacks.
"AT&T invented Unix in 1969; now 40 years later, you can hold a Unix workstation in your hand," says Damien Stolarz, co-author of "iPhone Hacks." Overstatement? Maybe a bit, but the processing power in an iPhone isn't much less than most of us had on or our desktops in 1996, he says.
Talking this week to Stolarz and Mario Ciabarra, who runs a small app store called Rock Your Phone, I was reminded of how refreshing the energy and enthusiasm of committed developers can be. These guys, and no doubt their colleagues and competitors, fairly bubble over with ideas, and words just tumble out of their mouths.
"It's like 1996 and the first commercial Web site has just gone up. But now, there are 2 billion cell phones on the planet. The iPhone is the future of the Internet, Web 3.0," says Stolarz.
Bluetooth, tethering, and more
In recent weeks, there have been rumors that the next-generation hardware will include twice the RAM and processing power of the iPhone 3G. One site even speculates that overclocking will account for some of the added horsepower. If true, what might a developer do with it?
"If rumors are true regarding increased RAM in the new hardware, the capability to multitask applications will lead to a true advanced mobile computing platform," says Ciabarra. One example: listening to Internet radio while using a turn-by-turn GPS navigation system with traffic updates and still being connected to your favorite IM network.
Depending on how Apple orchestrates its update, hackers might have some work to do before an official suite of utilities is released to the general community.
Stolarz figures that iPhone 3.0 will foment a Bluetooth revolution, unlike iPhone 2.0, which has only basic Bluetooth functionality (Bluetooth is completely turned off in the iPod Touch). We'll see peer-to-peer capabilities via Bluetooth, maybe enabling such actions as easily copying songs between iPhones, he says.
What about using video-out, he suggests, to turn your iPhone into a DVR, or attaching a screen and a keyboard and having a true PC in the hand? Actually, Stolarz already attaches a keyboard to his iPhone using the microphone input, but a more elegant hack will soon be possible.
Don't call it a jailbreak
Making money with a "rogue" app store requires marketing savvy and technical smarts. It's no accident that Ciabarra makes a point of never using the term "jailbreak."
"It may sound cool to developers, but to a consumer it sounds like something you don't want to do," he says. Instead, he talks about "a soft unlock."
In case you're confused, jailbreaking involves opening up your iPhone's Unix operating system, giving you complete access to its contents as well as the ability to install third-party applications. Unlocking bypasses the phone's SIM lock, allowing you to use your device with non-AT&T carriers.
There's no way to know if the terminology really makes a difference, but Rock Your Phone claims "tens of thousands" of downloads of apps ranging in price from $1.99 to $9.99.
Apple, meanwhile, maintains that jailbreaking by any name is a copyright infringement. "These modifications not only violate the warranty, they also cause the iPhone to become unstable and not work reliably," an Apple spokeswoman told the New York Times recently. Even so, neither Ciabarra nor Stolarz, whose work as a developer depends on a good relationship with Apple, complain about harassment or retaliation by the company.
Free the iPhone
Ciabarra says that he and his colleagues are careful to vet apps before allowing them on their store, being sure they don't place unwarranted strains on batteries or the processor and that they don't contain malware. And if he stops being careful, word of mouth will kill that operation in a flash, which is the way the market should work.
Independent developers are doing Apple a service by giving customers more reasons to buy an iPhone and more ways to enjoy it once they've plunked down their cash. And that in turn creates all the more buzz that convinces even more people to buy the product. Talk about ingratitude.
Apple's lock on the iPhone app market is bad for consumers, bad for developers, and bad for IT. It's time to change the rules.
(Disclosure: Bill Snyder holds a small number of shares in Apple.)