- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

The iPhone SDK: Forced or Preordained?

You know a lot of what Steve Jobs says during interviews may be overlooked when controversy erupts about something Apple is doing at any given moment.

Months back, for example, when Jobs was asked about a Software Development Kit (SDK) for the iPhone, to give third-party software developers a chance to build applications for it, he demurred and said not right away. He added, and this is important, that Apple was considering the best ways to accomplish that goal without making the iPhone vulnerable to security threats.

Indeed, the so-called “jailbreak” software that allows you to run unsupported applications or unlock the iPhone all take advantage of some sort of security hole to take control of the device. That may not be so big a deal, if that’s what you want. But it also creates the possibility that some Internet vandal could do the very same thing with nefarious intent, and you wouldn’t want that to happen, I hope.

One of the key features of the recent iPhone 1.1.1 firmware update, for example, was improved security, which locked down the gadget in a way that made the third party hacks incompatible. Of course, the prevailing wisdom is that this was a bad thing to do, because there was a growing cottage industry of such hacks that provided all sorts of cool stuff for the iPhone.

Now understand that it’s very easy to look at the nasty consequences, and blame Apple for wanting to protect its contract with its exclusive carriers. From a business standpoint, that makes a lot of sense, even if many of you don’t like the result.

Let’s shift to another development: At the recent WWDC, Jobs talked of a way to provide iPhone applications through the Safari browser. Again, this was done to create a sort of safe sandbox to allow you to gain additional features, but not at the expense of harming security. And, of course, it meant that the hoped-for SDK wasn’t here, and somehow far too many people got the wrong impression that it would never arrive.

In the ensuing weeks, there was a loud demand for Apple to open up the iPhone’s software to let third-parties in. Again, there was the general feeling that it wouldn’t happen, unless you filed class action suits, held picket signs outside of Apple’s corporate campus — or prayed a lot.

Well, I’m going to quote two key paragraphs from Job’s latest blog, which I think simply reflects a position that he’s expressed previously:

“Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

“It will take until February to release an SDK because we’re trying to do two diametrically opposed things at once—provide an advanced and open platform to developers while at the same time protect iPhone users from viruses, malware, privacy attacks, etc. This is no easy task. Some claim that viruses and malware are not a problem on mobile phones—this is simply not true. There have been serious viruses on other mobile phones already, including some that silently spread from phone to phone over the cell network. As our phones become more powerful, these malicious programs will become more dangerous. And since the iPhone is the most advanced phone ever, it will be a highly visible target.”

Forgetting the marketing spin, what he says in the second paragraph seems on the mark to me. If Apple is doing to get the job done, give them time to do it right and make the experience a happy and safe one for all of you.

Indeed, in addition to providing a secure framework, I also suspect Apple wants to incorporate some of the new features of Leopard in a forthcoming iPhone update.

Now one reason that the news of Leopard’s actual release came so close to that event is because Apple was probably struggling until the last possible moment to get a build that they could, with clear conscience, declare to be Golden Master. Or, to be cynical, they held out in an effort to eradicate as many serious bugs as possible, and the marketing people finally said “ship it and fix the rest with a 10.5.1.”

All right, maybe I’m inclined to favor the latter, because that’s the way and the truth in the software business. In fact, if you look at the results of our new Leopard poll, you’ll see a heavy percentage of the people voting — and we really want all of you to get involved, since we have thousands and thousands of visitors every day — prefer to wait for the first maintenance update before diving in.

Certainly, the shaky experience with Tiger might loom foremost in your memories, particularly those of you who needed to use VPN to log into corporate servers. My friend John Rizzo, at his MacWindows.com site, carefully logged those early problems. Fortunately, it seems that the ongoing updates to Tiger repaired most of the issues, along with a host of third-party updates.

Let’s just hope Leopard doesn’t force us to revisit old nightmares, and that the forthcoming iPhone SDK is indeed something worth waiting for.