“Politics,” famously said German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, “is the art of the possible, the attainable.” With the end of today’s much-anticipated Worldwide Developers’ Conference keynote by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, it is rapidly becoming clear that Apple—a company that has prided itself on being on the cutting edge of certain technologies—has become increasingly pragmatic, and focused on achievable, practical goals rather than abstract ones.
The company’s last-minute iPhone third-party development revelation is as good an example as any of the company’s current approach. If you’re interested in developing iPhone applications, Jobs told developers today, make Web 2.0 applications. They’ll run, like other web pages, in Safari. Good solution, right? It’s a practical one. iPhone’s Safari web browser provides a “good enough” playground or sandbox for developers to use until and unless Apple opts to truly open the iPhone up to dedicated application development.
Web-based apps won’t be able to tap directly into iPhone’s chips, so consequently, Web-based iPhone “applications” most likely won’t be able to fully exploit OS X’s coolest visual effects, and it would be a shock if users could run programs that as seamlessly access iPhone’s camera, data, photo library, and other stored media as the core set of main menu applications can. Examples provided by Apple of what developers can do—making a phone call, sending an e-mail, and displaying a location in Google Maps—appear to be comparatively simple, none implying that web apps will be able to access the iPhone’s (and therefore, your) personal content. There are obvious positives and negatives to that.
Our view is that Apple’s decision to offer such support is, in essence, a practical political move. Apple was once content to scoff at the idea of winning popularity contests on the grounds that it did things differently, and better. Now, like a politician focused on winning a majority, it understands that popularity can be a good thing, and that being popular means satisfying common requests rather than ignoring them.
Developers clearly want to create iPhone applications: companies have been announcing them, without any promise of Apple support or permission, since the iPhone was announced in January. Yet up until recently, Apple was dead set against allowing developers to create true iPhone applications, because it was concerned about compromising the device’s user experience, stability, or network security. Today’s solution costs Apple nothing; it publicly reconciles these competing views, at least temporarily, by letting developers create web pages that run on iPhone just as they would on a computer with OS X and Safari.
This solution also offers Apple the chance to continue with iPhone what it has started with iPod: establish untraditional, “cherry picked” relationships with third-party developers whose software is in Apple’s view best-suited to the device. If something works well as a web-based iPhone application, Apple can approach the developer to create an even better iPhone-specific version. Better yet, if something doesn’t fit within the company’s vision, it needn’t do anything: it can merely ignore the program, just as it does with widgets that it doesn’t want to get involved with.
Going forward, our questions are these: just how much web-style wrapping will surround third-party iPhone applications—will they look like simple web pages, screen-filling, URL-less widgets, or something else? And can they truly tap all of iPhone’s special capabilities, or just a limited subset? We’ll be looking forward to seeing what third-party developers can actually do with the iPhone, and what happens once they come up with something good enough to merit Apple’s interest.