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Apple answers call for iPhone applications

New software development kit and soon-to-be-launched application store show the true power of the iPhone.

Apple wowed the cell phone industry a year ago with the first version of the iPhone. And now its new software development kit and soon-to-be-launched application store featuring third-party applications could change the game yet again. (To get a closer look at the third-party software unveiled Monday, click here: "Video roundup: New apps coming to the iPhone.")

The big news Monday at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco was of course CEO Steve Jobs' announcement of a 3G version of the iPhone. But the company also made several software announcements that could set a new standard for getting new and innovative applications to market quickly.

There's no question that Apple's launch of the iPhone last year changed the handset market. The touchscreen device loaded with a full Web browser that allows people to shrink and enlarge Web pages set a new standard for what people can expect when surfing the Net on their phones.

But with the SDK and the soon-to-be-launched application store, Apple has shown the true power and vision of the iPhone, which goes well beyond simple Web browsing on the go. The company has created a powerful platform for developing new applications, plus a set of simple tools that can be used to quickly and easily bring new mobile applications to market. And it's created an App Store, linked with its popular iTunes music and video store, where these applications can be easily searched for and downloaded.

"A device is nothing without applications," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner. "The one lesson you can take away from Microsoft is that once you attract the developers the rest is an easy coast downhill. And I'm incredibly impressed at the speed in which Apple's application development platform has matured."

For many application developers, creating applications for the mobile environment can be a time-consuming process. There are hundreds of different handset models with different processing capabilities and screen sizes. And there are dozens of operating systems. Mobile developers often find themselves developing various versions of their product so they can fit on a wide range of devices. As a result, it can take several months just to launch a single application.

Loopt in the loop
Apple has tried to alleviate this problem with a simple-to-use tool that allows developers to create applications by simply dragging and dropping icons, slashing the time for development into a matter of weeks. During the keynote Monday, Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone software at Apple, took the audience through the actual developer experience, demonstrating how quickly and easily a complex service can be created.

Specifically he showed how he could merge contacts databases and location-aware services. He also showed how easily the completed application could be tested right on the Mac for bugs or to make different aesthetic choices, such as whether to put things in the toolbar or within the regular fields.

"The tool is amazing," said Sam Altman, CEO of Loopt, one of several companies that has used the iPhone SDK to develop an iPhone application. "In two months, we were able to make the best version of Loopt we've ever created. It's taken us nearly a year to create other versions of our software."

Loopt already has its application on phones that use the Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless networks. These service providers offer Loopt's friend-tracking application for a monthly fee. iPhone Loopt users will be able to get it for free.

But it's not just the ability to create applications more quickly and more easily that excites application developers; Apple has also created a rich environment in which to develop the applications. The APIs used in the SDK are the same ones Apple uses to develop applications internally. And there are many similarities between the iPhone's operating system and the Mac OS X, making it easier for Mac developers to create rich applications.

"The underlying software platform for the iPhone is much more powerful than any other mobile device we've seen," said Jeffrey Litvack, global product development director for the Associated Press. "It just makes it much easier for us to show off all our multimedia content, like videos and pictures. It's more challenging on other platforms."

Loopt's Altman agreed.

"The quality of mobile applications for the iPhone is just so much better," he said.

Apple invited several developers to show off their applications. In addition to the friend finder Loopt application, Sega demonstrated a new version of Super Monkey Ball. eBay showed off a new application for keeping track of auctions. And others such as Modality showed an application that gives medical students up-close views of human body parts to help them study anatomy. Major League Baseball demonstrated an application that gives near real-time updates on games. And the Associated Press showed off an application that sends out local news based on a user's location.

The distribution challenge
There are other problems that application developers face that Apple promises to help solve, namely distribution. In a traditional model, application developers can either distribute their applications independently or they can work directly with mobile operators.

Companies such as Handango have created application stores for devices like Research In Motion's BlackBerry that developers can use to distribute their applications. There are also stores for Windows Mobile devices and ones created for the Symbian operating system, which is used by Nokia. But consumers are often unfamiliar with these stores making it difficult for developers to count on a reliable distribution chain.

The other option for application developers is to work directly with mobile operators so that their applications are either embedded in specific handsets or can be found on the carrier's "deck."

Getting "on deck" or embedded in a specific phone is often a long, arduous process. And once an application has made it this far, it's no guarantee that it will be easily discovered by users. Embedded applications usually have an icon that may be prominently displayed. And applications in carrier decks can be buried beneath several layers of menu. Application developers are constantly fighting for a top spot in these menus.

"Discoverability is a challenge for all application developers," said Tom Frencel, president of Cabybara Games, a mobile games company. "Some of these menus are pretty deep and they're difficult to navigate. "

During his keynote Monday, Jobs officially announced the upcoming iPhone App Store, which was first talked about in March when he announced the release of the .

The App Store isn't yet available so it's difficult to say for sure how it will work, but it's likely that the interface will look very similar to the popular iTunes music and video store. iPhone users will be able to browse the store directly on their phones and download applications either over the cellular network or over a Wi-Fi connection. And for iPhone users who want to look for applications on their PC, they can use the PC-based iTunes to search, download, and purchase applications just like if they were looking for songs, videos, or podcasts.

"Millions of people are already using iTunes," Frencel added. "I think the PC is the most powerful interface to browse content anyway, so it makes sense to use it."

Today, Apple's iPhone makes up only a small percentage of the overall cell phone market. But it's quickly gaining ground on smartphone competitors such as Research In Motion, Nokia, and Palm. The basic design and functionality of the iPhone has set the bar for a phone of this class. And if Apple can broaden the device's appeal with thousands of cool third-party applications that are easy to find and just as easy to access, then it just might set the bar yet again in the mobile market.