iPhone – Open or Closed?

By Bob Walsh

If you’re a developer and you caught the coverage Tuesday of the Apple iPhone the thought after “I want one!” was “Can I write applications for it?” Will the iPhone be a closed box, locked down and buttoned up with nothing running on it that doesn’t have an Apple trademark in its name? That’s the call of various tech media and blogs who after their predictable swoon over the iPhone Tuesday indulged in their just as predictable “it will never fly” stories Wednesday. (admittedly, I did some swooning over the iPhone too.)

No answers yet, and you can find good speculation on this at this 43Folders podcast, but I’d like to share a little perspective with you.

[Disclaimer: Back in the early '90s I was a Apple Newton developer with a contract with Apple's Newton software publishing arm, StarCore. Apple pulled the plug on our app when they recalibrated Newton's projected annual sales from 5 million to 50,000. The experience was not a pleasant one and was the main reason I went from being an Apple developer to a Windows developer. Apple will do what Apple thinks it should do, developers be damned. (I am far from unopinionated when it comes to Apple.)]

The Newton came in for plenty of Mainstream Media criticism (some rightly deserved), ended careers and left Apple’s corporate culture with a radioactive burn zone called “PDA”.

But burns leave itches that need to be scratched, that was then, this is now and Apple sees itself as a digital lifestyle company that happens to make computers. I hope Apple is going to finally scratch that itch and scratch it right.

Apple, Inc. (no longer Apple Computer, Inc., a telling change of identity) has put a few straws in the wind worth considering:

  • Where are the iPod games? Right now, you can buy games from iTunes – all 11 of them. Doesn’t anyone else wonder why there’s only the initial 11 games the iPod with Video launched with in September? I suspect something is brewing here: perhaps a new StarCore to enforce standards, ensure Apple gets a hefty revenue cut and act as a gatekeeper?
  • A Widget is an app. Two OX Widgets were demo’ed Tuesday running on the iPhone. Granted a Widget barely qualifies as an app, but given iPhone runs some sort of scaled down Mac OS, the infrastructure is there.
  • Apple’s Phil Schiller said repeatedly “when you connect it to a computer” in this YouTubed CBSNews interview. Obvious point, but where there’s a wire, there’s a conduit and where there’s that, there’s a way to get my bytes on that box.
  • Google Maps means JavaScript, Ajax and the rest of the “Web 2.0″ paradigm already has its nose under bottom edge of the tent.

Given the above, I think the question is already answered: the iPhone will be open, or at least as open as the iPod.

The deeper question for me is will Apple myopically starve developers for resources, information because it is too focused/hypnotized by it’s own vision of what the iPhone should be? That’s what in part killed both the Newton and Netscape.

Or will Apple – specifically Steve Jobs – realize they have again invented a big part of the future, as they did with the first Mac, but that future will only come to life if developers and the people formerly known as users have the first class ability to contribute?

According to this report, the decision has not been made. If you know any Apple exec’s now is a good time to ring their bell about this, or at least join this petition. Do you as developer want an open or closed future?

[tags]iPhone, iPhone SDK[/tags]