Peering into the iPhone SDK Crystal Ball
Thursday brings the SDK. You know, the one that needs no other identifier. The one that the entire tech-verse has been chomping at the bit for since roughly 0.001 seconds after Steve Jobs slipped the iPhone from his pocket at Macworld 2007.
But that’s all we know: SDK Event March 6th.
We don’t know whether the SDK will be ready to code that very same day, who’ll be given access to it, how they’ll test for it, what type of approval process Apple will require, how apps will be distributed, how they’ll be priced, and most importantly for the end user: whether or not “OMG teh iPhone can has WoW!!11”
However, that doesn’t stop us from guessing!
Trying to predict what Apple will do at any given event is a little bit science and a whole lot black magic (of the 8-ball variety). Let’s face it: the Apple Campus at 1 Infinite Loop could teach the NSA a thing or two about how to keep secrets.
Why is Apple so close-lipped? Equal parts competitive advantage (Apple prefers that it takes Microsoft years and not months to copy their latest innovations), marketing strategy (how else to get the “faithful” lined up at 3am, and the ‘net brought to a crashing halt before every Jobs Note?), and making bloggers and pundits who write “prediction” articles look silly the day after.
In that spirit, here we go:
Will the SDK be finished and ready to code with on March 6th?
While I’d like nothing more than for Steve Jobs to take the stage, Tap Tap Revolution in hand and ready to ship on Day One, I doubt it. Rumors say the SDK will still be in beta, and while it may go out early to Electronic Arts-class partners, with a later drop to ADC members (who may be able to run tests via a "simulator"), I don’t think we’ll see it officially released until Apple’s Word Wide Developers Conference in June.
Chalk it up to limited resources meets high security demands (for a mobile computer storing all your personal data and documents), further complicated by Apple’s obsessive need to control every little aspect.
How much access will developers have to the hardware?
The l33t hax0rs want to write to the metal: their Guitar Hero axe plugged into the dock connector rocking out over Skype while VNC’ing to their torrent server. Apple wants certified developers writing superficial games and productivity apps that don’t for a single moment harshen the Zen-like beauty and user experience of their hand-held gift to the world.
We’ll likely see something in between. Developers will be able to access the same protocols already surfaced via custom links (i.e. the phone, the web, email, perhaps the QuickView-like functionality), as well as things like the accelerometer and camera to allow for more interactive gaming.
The mic would enable both voice recording and Nintendo-DS style cloud-blowing action, but would also open the door to VoIP, which would delight users but could make Big Telco grumpy (do it, Apple!).
According to previous reports, the dock cable will be off-limits, which would mean no hardware keyboards or other peripherals, but Apple already has an extensive dock licensing program in place where developers could explore those options, and if the Bluetooth radio is made available, the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard would be one sweet ultra-mobile option! (And if the WI-Fi radio is there as well, goodbye Apple Remote and hello iPhone to control Apple TV and iTunes!)
And I don’t see carriers letting anyone run wild over the EDGE radio.
Also, I agree with The Gruber that there will be different levels of developers granted different access to the hardware, from very close, very trusted partners (like the aforementioned EA) given very broad privileges, and free ADC members getting more limited access.
Bonus prediction: Longtime Mac developers will initially be given the "limited access" snub, leading to an explosion of blog-rage, resolved by a price-drop-esque Apple-a-culpa and policy change.
How will applications be made available?
Almost certainly via an initially very stringent Apple certification process and distribution exclusively via iTunes.
Let’s face it: Apple spent an incredible amount of time and money on the iPhone user experience and they’re going to demand just as elegant, easy to use, and (cough MobileSafari cough) stable apps from their 3rd parties.
Likewise, iTunes is the little store that could (pass Best Buy to become the #2 music retailer in the US, that is). If Apple could force Big Telco to hand over cell phone activation to iTunes, I don’t for a minute think they’ll let just any old Eastern European 11 year old install wild on their box.
Music sales have shown that there is a market for simple, safe, and secure online transactions with iTunes, and the $20 iPod Touch mail, notes, maps, stocks, and weather apps strike me as just that type of proof-of-concept.
That same $20 update also raises the question of whether or not there will be a way for developers to make their applications available for free via iTunes? I think so. Apple has shown they understand the benefit of provide free content with Podcasts, iTunes University, iTunes Free Tuesdays, and free promotional videos (recently for American Idol). 3rd party apps could and should benefit from the same type of enlightened thinking.
A handful of "booms", three "the best", and a "gorgeous". One C-level 3rd party exec up on stage. Non-licensed Exchange support.
(Now go forth and, if past predictions are any indicator, enjoy watching Jobs bring a developer-friendly Balmer and much-relieved Carmack up to show off the ready-to-ship Mobile Office 2008 suite, and Quake running over EDGE via dock-connected rumble pad).