With new iPhone software, Apple breaks from the pack

With third-party applications and support for IT-friendly features, it'll be hard to dismiss the iPhone from the corporate scene--and the gaming world--any longer.

By the time Apple officially releases the OS X 2.0 update in June, there will be no doubt that the iPhone will have turned both the personal computing and mobile communications industries on their head in just one year.

Let's be clear: Apple didn't invent the concept of the smartphone. People have been making calls, checking corporate e-mail, surfing the Internet, watching videos, and playing games on handheld devices for years. What Apple has done, however, is put together the most complete and compelling combination of those features and wrapped it with a breakthrough in user interface design.

The enterprise-friendly features and roadmap for third-party applications unveiled Thursday at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters bring Apple two steps closer to that point. And when the final piece-- the 3G iPhone --arrives at some point in the upcoming future, Apple will have developed the first truly mobile computer.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs explains how the iPhone is about to enter its second chapter. Corinne Schulze/CNET Networks

At least, for now. Will all mobile developers find it as easy to build iPhone applications as the five developers highlighted during Thursday's event? Does the addition of push e-mail make the iPhone more attractive than the BlackBerry? And how soon will it be before the rest of the world figures out Apple's secret: it's the software, stupid. The answers to those questions will dictate the second chapter of the iPhone .

Let's review what was introduced Thursday. The new enterprise features are a slam dunk. Licensing Microsoft's ActiveSync is a move as important to the growth of the iPhone as developing a version of iTunes for Windows was for growth of the iPod. iPhone users will now have secure and reliable access to Microsoft's widely used Exchange e-mail server, turning their iPhone into an extension of their desktop.

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iPhone opens up for business
Click here for complete coverage of Apple's iPhone SDK announcements, which give the hot-shot gadget its entree into Corporate America and even the gaming world.

No one will be able to say, after the release of OS X 2.0, that the iPhone isn't suitable for businesses. It will have a laundry list of enterprise features, starting with ActiveSync. That protocol allows for the secure, wireless syncing of e-mail, calendars, and contacts data. It turns the iPhone into a BlackBerry or Treo.

IT departments cautiously testing the iPhone waters will also be able to breathe easier with features like Cisco's IPSec virtual private network technology (IPSec is an encryption standard), "remote wipe" technology that can erase sensitive data if an iPhone is lost or stolen, and better wireless security with 802.1x support.

This is an unquestioned win for Apple in the enterprise, as IT managers will get almost everything they want in a mobile business device. Software developers might not be quite so ecstatic at their portion of Thursday's news, but it could have been worse .

Developers swarmed Apple's Web site in the immediate aftermath of the company's presentation, trying to get more information and to download a beta version of the SDK. Several Apple blogs reported very slow load times on Apple's developer Web pages.

Developers will get access to the iPhone for $99 a year, as part of Apple's iPhone Developer Program. The program, however, will only be available to U.S. developers at first, and only "a limited number" of developers at that. Apple declined to elaborate on the exact definition of "limited." A separate $299 "enterprise" developer program will be available for corporations creating in-house applications.

Cocoa Touch is the key
The actual development process itself should be very familiar to anyone who has developed a Mac application in the past, as Apple's in-depth presentation on OS X confirmed that the mobile operating system shares many of the same underpinnings as Mac OS X. The difference, however, is a tweaked version of Cocoa, Apple's programming environment, called Cocoa Touch.

Cocoa Touch is the key to iPhone applications. It will allow developers to take advantage of the touchscreen interface that has been key to early iPhone demand. EA's Spore and Apple's Touch Fighter games demonstrated just what innovative developers will be able to do with that technology.

But while the games should be interesting, there are countless other possibilities. I was struck by Epocrates' concept applications involving the iPhone as a diagnostic instrument, allowing doctors to check for drug interactions, obtain patient history, or even check the picture of an unknown pill against a database of pills.

As expected, Apple is going to control the distribution of the applications through either the iTunes Store or the App Store, which will allow iPhone users to wirelessly download applications. Apple gets a 30 percent cut of the revenue of any iPhone or iPod Touch application sold through the stores, which sounds like a lot to me but apparently didn't faze some developers. Free applications will be listed free of charge on the App Store.

An Apple representative confirmed that the company will certify every application made available through the App Store. That will be a ton of work--and might explain why participation will be limited at first--but Apple CEO Steve Jobs said it's necessary to ensure security and reliability. All applications will have to be electronically signed by their developers, a process similar to what is required by Symbian, the most widely used smartphone operating system.

The devil, as always, will be in the details of that application certification program. Wireless unlocking applications? Of course not, Jobs said. But voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software will be permitted, he said, so long as it only uses the Wi-Fi chip for communication, not the EDGE cellular network.

So where will Apple draw the line? This was perhaps the key unanswered question from Thursday's presentation. Apple seems open to quite a few different types of applications, but if it's planning to certify them individually, some patterns might emerge and provide some hints of where Apple wants to go with its own software applications. As developers get their hands on the beta SDK, I expect a lot more of those questions to be answered, at least in part.

A wide-open race
To me, the most interesting thing about the development of the smartphone industry is the wide-open nature of the race . This time around, a winner is not going to be picked in the early stages of the competition. Several huge important companies--Apple, Microsoft, Google, Nokia, RIM, and don't forget about Palm just yet--have already had an impact on the development of the product, and will continue to do so well into the future.

Despite sitting out the first few years, Apple has arguably vaulted ahead of its competition in just 12 months. The other players in this industry came into smartphones building them for businesspeople and their IT masters. Then they tried to woo the consumer.

Apple has done the complete opposite, hooking those who had never used a smartphone before with the iPhone's interface, and now giving them the opportunity to use it for both work and play.

The first era of the mobile-computing industry was about hardware. The second part will be about software. And right now, no one is developing mobile software like Apple.

About the author

    Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.

     

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