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Apple developers mark a year of iPhone apps

One year after Apple unveiled its software development kit for the iPhone and iPod Touch, development is flourishing despite the overwhelming pace of growth.

The iPhone software roadmap laid out by Apple CEO Steve Jobs one year ago has allowed 15,000 applications to flourish.
Corrine Schulze/CNET Networks

Apple's success with iPhone applications wasn't preordained, but the company had a huge leg up on the competition with a hit device, a mature software platform, and the one of the biggest online stores on the planet.

"They had all three sitting there, and that's very difficult to create in this industry," said Travis Boatman, vice president of worldwide studios for EA Mobile, creator of iPhone games such as Spore and Sim City.

But for all the work Apple has done to make the iPhone a success over the past year, its future lies in the hands of outside developers. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs and iPhone software head Scott Forstall first publicly described the parameters of the iPhone software development process a year ago, they set the stage for the stunning growth in iPhone applications that has allowed the iPhone and iPod Touch to become truly personal computers for both work and play.

Apple has since made iPhone applications the centerpiece of its marketing campaign for the device, with pitches tailored to consumers and business users showing off the breadth and depth of iPhone applications. The rest of the industry has noticed; virtually every other major smartphone company is scrambling to set up their own App Store-like experience.

Those companies have also learned a few things not to do from Apple, and iPhone developers have encountered more than a few headaches along the way, from a misguided nondisclosure agreement to confusing policies on App Store requirements.

However, the rampant success of the platform has made it very easy for developers to focus on the positive. "If you would have asked me a year ago if I saw myself making $250,000 selling a fart app, I would have said, 'you're nuts'," said Joel Comm, CEO of Infomedia and iPhone zeitgeist application iFart Mobile.

Tools for the job
It seemed clear that Apple wasn't ready to let developers start playing with the iPhone in June 2007. The company was more concerned with meeting its June shipping deadline than making it accessible to developers, said Craig Hockenberry, principal/software engineer at Iconfactory, developer of popular iPhone applications such as Twitteriffic.

Games such as EA Mobile's Spore are among the most popular iPhone and iPod Touch applications. EA Mobile

In the months that followed, however, iPhone developers learned just how easy it was to create unofficial applications through the jailbreaking process. But an SDK was an inevitable move, and when Apple was finally ready to let the SDK loose in March 2008, Hockenberry said developers found a set of tools and technologies that borrowed much of the mature technology found in Mac OS X and brought it to the iPhone.

"From day 1, I was very impressed with the whole set of tools, and how easy it was to transfer from doing Mac software development to doing iPhone software development," Hockenberry said.

Developers still faced a learning curve in appreciating the differences between developing for the constraints of a mobile platform and developing for a PC or Mac, but the close ties between the iPhone's OS X and Mac OS X made it much easier for developers to get started.

Road to market
Apple had a huge advantage when it came to distributing those iPhone applications. After all, bits are bits, whether they are songs, movies, or applications, and Apple was wise to work iPhone application distribution into a familiar framework already installed on millions of computers: iTunes.

Apple also retained the exclusive right to distribute iPhone applications, which gave it a free hand in deciding which applications were suitable for the App Store, and which weren't. There are excellent reasons for taking that approach: as the recent tempest over rogue applications on Facebook shows, allowing developers unfettered access to your platform isn't always a good idea.

However, Apple has used its hammerlock on distribution in confusing ways.

Comm and Infomedia were all set to submit iFart Mobile to the App Store on the same day that a rival fart application, Pull My Finger, was rejected. So the company decided to hold off for a few weeks, eventually resubmitting the application only to be surprised when Apple, without further comment, accepted the application into an "In Review" category, or "iTunes purgatory," as Comm called it. It was later approved along with Pull My Finger, and for a period of time iFart Mobile was one of the best-selling applications on the App Store

The point is that one day fart jokes were off limits on the App Store, and then another day, they were fine, and Apple never explained why. Comm doesn't really care now that the app has been downloaded over 400,000 times, but Apple's tight-fisted control of iPhone distribution is both a blessing and a curse to iPhone developers.

On second thought....
As with most massive endeavors, Apple made a few decisions over the past year over which, if the company ever discussed its business in public, it might acknowledge some regret. (As usual, Apple representatives declined requests to participate in this article.)

Under the terms of Apple's iPhone developer NDA, knowledge-sharing events such as iPhone Dev Camp could have been imperiled. Andrew Mager/ZDNet

Perhaps the single biggest mistake Apple made in a year of iPhone development was the decision to impose a nondisclosure agreement on developers, prohibiting them from discussing tips and tricks with their fellow developers under some misguided notion that this would enable competitors to get the scoop on the iPhone.

Rather, all it did was frustrate developers who wasted their time trying to implement a certain function when a simpler fix could have been provided by a more experienced developer through a simple e-mail to a discussion list or a Twitter post. Hockenberry, who was particularly vocal when it came to expressing his distaste for the NDA, called Apple's decision to leave that in place following the July launch of the App Store "a low point" over the past year.

Apple got the message in October, and now hosts evangelist talks and developer forums that let fellow iPhone owners connect with each other and share ways for improving their products.

The company's other big mistake was in the number of resources it allocated to the App Store approval process. It was apparent right away that Apple's decision to vet every single iPhone application was a huge undertaking, but it's fair to say that no one--even Apple--correctly estimated the growth that would take place in this market.

Unfortunately for Apple and developers, that growth quickly overwhelmed the people inside Apple responsible for processing application approvals and advising developers on development--one developer who wished to remain nameless even reported significant delays in getting their share of the revenue garnered by their application. The problem appears to be easing, but it's surprising that Apple failed to properly prepare for the success of its own strategy.

The once and future app
So where can Apple improve the App Store and iPhone application experience for both developers and users? Here are four items on developer wish lists.

• Demo applications: Right now, developers who want to entice iPhone or iPod Touch users to try their application tend to develop a free "lite" version of that application that expires or comes with limited functionality. Developers would prefer to have something similar to a downloadable game that's free to use for a while with all the bells and whistles, but can only be used beyond a certain point in time for a fee.

• Genius for applications: Greg Yardley of Pinch Media came up with this one, explaining that "discovery right now is the biggest issue on the App Store." Yardley advises iPhone developers, and he reports that they would like to see Apple introduce something like the Genius feature--which recommends songs you might like based on your music library--for applications. "One of the biggest challenges that Apple's going to face is figuring out the best way to feature (thousand of application) on a screen that's 320 (pixels) by 480," he said.

• Better promotional opportunities: EA's Boatman hopes Apple will decide to start promoting iPhone applications more aggressively on the main iTunes Store home page. Newly released music and movies tend to get top billing on that page, and a list of the Top 10 paid and free applications appears way, way down on the right hand side of the page. "It's a little like when you watch someone walk into a Border's book store, you don't start walking down the aisle reading each book spine" when you're looking for a new book, he said.

• A real review system: My colleague Josh Lowensohn touched on this the other day. Right now, App Store reviews are a mess, based partly on the fact that the music review system carried over from the other parts of the iTunes Store doesn't make as much sense for software. Right-of-response and better sorting options could dramatically improve the chances of good developers being rewarded for making quality products, and of users finding the app that's right for them.

iPhone and iPod Touch applications have changed the notion of how Apple and its customers perceive the devices; suddenly they are gaming consoles and medical diagnostic tools, instead of mere phones or music players. Still, Apple has taken a cautious approach to making decisions about the product that could be its profit engine for the next decade.

"They realize that every decision that they make is going to have long-term repercussions, and they aren't rushing to decisions," Hockenberry said. With competitors such as Research in Motion, Google, Microsoft, Palm, and Symbian gearing up to court developers with their own mobile application platforms, the solid foundation laid by Apple and its partners should ensure that as long as iPhones are popular, applications will flourish.