Does Apple Hate the iPhone Hackers?

August 27th, 2007

Months before the iPhone debuted, Apple was being asked over and over again about the prospects for running third party software on it. But a short time before the hot-selling gadget shipped, Steve Jobs was saying that Apple hadn’t decided how to handle development for the iPhone yet, but that a workable solution might come at a later time.

Not long thereafter, during his WWDC keynote, Jobs said that developers could build Web-based applications using Safari, but there would be no other supported method. Was that meant to close the door permanently, or just to give Apple more time to develop a secure solution?

Now it’s not as if the iPhone is bereft of software. Apple provides plenty of useful tools, including as full-featured a browser as you can expect on such a device. But what about the stuff that hasn’t arrived yet, such as a chatting application and other niceties?

True, some of this stuff is arriving clumsily via the Web-based interface, but it doesn’t integrate so nicely with the iPhone’s features, such as the icon dock. So call it half a loaf, and it’s a sure thing developers are anxious to get something more flexible and far-reaching.

Right now, though, it appears they may not require Apple’s help.

As you recall, during the first few months that Apple built Intel-based Macs, running Windows wasn’t so easy. Microsoft’s VirtualPC wasn’t compatible, and other solutions, from small companies, were barely functional. However, some crackers found a way to patch the firmware to allow installing Windows on another hard drive partition. After some folks won a prize for their work, Apple came out with an official solution. In fact, it arrived so quickly, you just knew it was lying in wait for the appropriate occasion to release.

So how does the Boot Camp example relate to the iPhone? Well, right now, a lot of smart programmers have played with the iPhone’s OS X-based underpinnings and have found ways to take it way beyond the initial Apple design. Just this past weekend, you probably heard that a teenager had devised a way to unlock the iPhone, so you could plug in a SIM card from another network, say T-Mobile in the U.S., or an overseas carrier, and it would be mostly functional. Mostly functional meaning that such features as visual voicemail and YouTube support are lacking. Those features evidently require a connection to the AT&T network, and no doubt other networks that will come to support the iPhone will have to make similar adjustments.

Unfortunately, the method mentioned most often requires opening the phone and fiddling with a soldering tool to accomplish some of its magic. But there are others who tout software-only tools that have the same end result.

But even if you don’t care about cutting the ties that bind the iPhone to AT&T, there are other options that allow you to install third party software. Some allow you to use Mac OS X’s Terminal to send Unix software on over to the iPhone, and others allow you to install more user-friendly chat clients and other stuff.

Speaking of user-friendly, there’s also a site now that offers an installer application that greatly simplifies the process of adding new stuff to your iPhone.

Some of this is reminiscent of the early days of Mac OS X, when the operating system didn’t have a whole lot of features, and even printing was uncertain. But there were plenty of third party applications that unlocked the Unix core to put friendly faces upon different tools. Some were just interface-related, such as allowing you to move the Dock away from its bottom center location. Apple eventually took the hint and allowed you to move it to the left or right side, but placing it on the top or in the corners is still reserved for those system interface tuners — or, if you prefer, a set of commands in the Terminal.

In the same fashion, you can bet Apple is watching the iPhone hacking world very carefully, since they fully expected the scene to play out this way. First, of course, they want to make sure that the hackers aren’t doing something illegal, sufficient to call the legal eagles into action. But even if this stuff is perfectly legal, if lots and lots of iPhone users flock to these newfound toys, I’m really sure that Apple will take the hint and do something about it.

Of course, you’ll no doubt see a fair number of additional applications and system-tuning tools in future iPhone updates. These will be the officially-sanctioned solutions. What’s more, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple eventually opened the platform and provided a true Software Development Kit (SDK) to members of its developers program.

But providing an SDK doesn’t mean a simple set of applications to create iPhone software. Apple has to test those tools, and provide developer support in some fashion. Those who pay the big bucks for these developer programs are entitled to varying degrees of support, depending on the package they purchase. That means Apple has to allocate engineers to the project, and right now they no doubt have their work cut out for them, finalizing Leopard for the planned October release.

I fully expect that Leopard will, hook or crook, appear before the end of October. What’s more, I fully expect that once Mac OS 10.5 is out the door, Apple will put the final spit and polish on a fully-featured iPhone programmers tool. The hackers may have shown the way, but Apple will eventually deliver the goods.

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