Why Instinctiv avoided the iPhone SDK

Instinctiv has a cool app for de-randomizing the shuffle feature on the iPhone, but it works only on "jailbroken" devices. The company explains why it won't use the new iPhone SDK.

A few days ago, I posted about Instinctiv's Shuffle application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It's an interesting piece of software that addresses a growing problem for some discerning listeners--how to get a meaningful playlist without having to program it song by song--but it only works on so-called "jailbroken" devices.

Instinctiv found Apple's iPhone SDK to be too restrictive for its needs. Apple

Instinctiv's FAQ alluded to problems that made it impossible for it to use the iPhone software developer kit (SDK), but I was curious to hear more, and Monday I had a chance to talk with Instinctiv co-founders Justin Smithline and Peter Brodsky.

As Brodsky put it, "Apple's not really releasing an iPhone SDK." To paraphrase his explanation, the iPhone runs Mac OS X. Apple could simply have allowed developers to write applications to that platform--that's more or less how jailbroken apps work--and let the developers figure out how to distribute them. That's the traditional software development model.

Instead, Apple is trying assert tighter control over the iPhone by allowing only code-signed applications to run on it. The only way to get your application code-signed is by participating in Apple's iPhone Developer Program. Which requires--among other things--developers to use the new SDK.

Developers can download the SDK for free to see whether they're interested in applying to become an official iPhone developer. But Instinctiv says the SDK was useless to them because it doesn't provide a way for applications access the music library. (One of many restrictions it imposes.) According to the Instinctiv co-founders, this is not about protecting users from badly written apps--it's possible to write an "approved" app with the SDK that degrades performance on the iPhone--but is being done strictly for business reasons.

I'm not a developer and am not qualified to evaluate this claim. But even if it's correct, so what? Apple spent a lot of time and money creating the mobile phone that everybody wants, and absolutely should be able to control the user experience, enforce exclusive arrangements with its carrier partners, and extract fees from third-party application developers.

But this strategy works only as long as there's no viable competition. Right now, there are plenty of other mobile platforms that third-party developers can write applications for--Symbian (which Nokia recently bought in its entirety and turned open source), RIM's Blackberry, and Microsoft's Windows Mobile just to name three. But those platforms either have inherent flaws--the Windows Mobile UI comes to mind--or the devices they're used on don't have the combination of style and features that the iPhone is becoming known for.

Google's taking the opposite approach of Apple, building its Android mobile phone platform on open-source software such as Linux and promoting it heavily to third-party developers. Instinctiv is bullish on the platform, and has already designed a version of its Shuffle app for Android.

But I'm pretty skeptical about Android's chances of changing the world. When buying a phone, are consumers really looking for a large choice of applications? No. They're looking for a cool phone that does a few things very well, and a service provider that offers reasonable service in the widest possible range. The iPhone has the edge in hardware design, it has most of the features and applications that most people want, and while AT&T's service isn't perfect, neither is anybody else's. Android might have been great five years ago, going head to head against Symbian and Windows Mobile in their infancy. But competing against the iPhone's unified array of hardware+software+online services will be a tough task for any company.