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Apple opens iPhone to developers--kind of

Developers of third-party applications can build features for iPhone, but only through the Safari browser.

Smart-phone developers learned Monday that they won't be shut out of Apple's iPhone. But they're going to have to wait for the red carpet.

CEO Steve Jobs announced during his keynote address at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco that developers of third-party applications will be able to create Web applications for the iPhone using Safari, Apple's Web browser.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

This gives developers the chance to create iPhone applications using common Web development standards such as Ajax ahead of the device's June 29 launch. As a bonus, those applications will also work on Windows now that Safari will run on Microsoft's operating system.

But this is not what many mobile developers were hoping to hear. Unlike other mobile-phone makers, Apple has chosen not to set up a software development kit or support community for iPhone applications at this time.

Call it the iPhone compromise--Apple is giving developers a chance to get their wares on the iPhone, but not every application will work properly inside a browser without native support. The decision means Apple has a better chance of guaranteeing application security and reliability on the native applications it does allow on the iPhone, but it falls short of what other smart-phone companies--notably Nokia--offer mobile-application developers.

"It's a neat starting point, but I don't call this really third-party app support."
--Daniel Graf, founder and CEO, Kyte

"It's a first small step in the right direction, but they have many more steps they need to follow," said Daniel Graf, founder and CEO of Kyte, which allows mobile-phone users to share videos and photos.

When Apple unveiled the iPhone in January, Jobs hinted that Apple would be the only game in town for iPhone application development. He seemed concerned that a rash of third-party applications could create security and reliability problems that could derail Apple's first attempt at cracking the smart-phone market.

But at the D: All Things Digital conference in May, Jobs appeared to signal that he was amenable to third-party application support, which has been an important factor in the success of other mobile devices. This had developers eager to get their hands on a software development kit. They're going to have to wait.

The Web application compromise "is probably the way to go," said one developer for a major financial services company who asked not to be identified. It avoids the potential problems that might come with allowing full iPhone development too soon, he said.

Apple's plan allows the iPhone to quickly take advantage of added features that Apple doesn't have the time or willingness to develop itself, without the risk that poorly written programs could hurt the device's stability, said Mike McGuire, an analyst with Gartner. It also allows Apple to take advantage of the groundswell of interest in developing new Web applications.

"A lot of the interesting stuff out there right now are these Web 2.0 apps," he said. "Go where the momentum is."

But if Apple really wants the iPhone to be a widespread success against smart phones already in the market from companies like Nokia, it will have to create a developer community like the one it's entertaining this week in San Francisco, Graf said.

"It's a neat starting point, but I don't call this really third-party app support," Graf said. "Third-party application support means you can do a Java app, or Windows Mobile app, or BREW (binary runtime environment for wireless), and then you can take advantage of the phone's capabilities." Graf said he doesn't think his company's photo-sharing application will work without native support.

The financial services developer said he would be disappointed if Apple didn't eventually allow native iPhone apps. "Some people would want to go deeper," he said, noting that there are things developers would want to do that can't be done with an Ajax application. "I would hope they would open it up in a more compelling way at some point."

As for his company, he said the amount of time devoted to the iPhone depends on whether the firm decides to make the iPhone a fully supported platform, like the BlackBerry is currently. Whether the device earns that status depends in large part on how many iPhones Apple can sell, and what kind of people end up buying them. "Big corporations are conservative that way," he said.

And in a way, many application developers will also take a wait-and-see attitude with the iPhone, said Todd Kort, an industry consultant who has tracked mobile devices for years. Sales volume will help determine the speed of iPhone application development, and many influential factors that have yet to be fully tested, such as battery life, will help determine the iPhone's fate, he said.

Over time, however, developing a vibrant developer community is a must for any computing platform, be it Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Palm and mobile phones, Graf said.

"Look at the development arm of Nokia, they have 3 million active developers and mobile applications are nowhere yet," he said. "If Apple did anything like that for the iPhone, it would be huge."

Correction: This story misstated the last name of Kyte's founder and chief executive. He is Daniel Graf.