iPhone SDK: Delayed? Full Featured? Yes Please.

PalmOS Emulator on the iPhone, image from Matthew Miller (Link below in article)

The SDK might be delayed one to three weeks, says Arik Hesseldal of BusinessWeek:

I’m hearing from one source that its going to be late. I’m not yet hearing any reasons why, and it’s sounding like the official release date could slide by anywhere from one to three weeks. [...] However I’m also hearing that the situation is fluid, and a lot of last-minute decisions are close to being made about what precisely will or will not be disclosed next week, if anything. There are, apparently, a lot of moving parts to something this complex.

A lot of "moving parts," eh, ya think? It would be a major bummer if the SDK is delayed, but it wouldn't be too shocking - the sand is quickly running out of February's hourglass. Fairly soon, though, we're going to have some information about the SDK and I have to admit that my expectations are rising the more I think about it.

This is related (again) to Mike and my discussion in our iPhone Podcast last week. As I see it, there are four ways that the SDK announcement (whenever it comes) can shake out. Read on for some thoughts on what we might see and what I hope to see.

So those four ways are a combination of two sets of possibilities. The first set is pretty straightforward, and they're what Mike and I discussed:

  1. The SDK is announced, as is the method of distribution (iTunes-only or something more open), but no apps are released.
  2. Same as above, but we're treated to new, 3rd party apps immediately.

I am sincerely hoping for the latter, of course, but my hunch is we'll see the former. The big question here is whether the distribution method is iTunes-only or whether developers can distribute directly (and whether 3rd party software stores can get in on the action). Again, my preference is for the more open option, but hunch is that we'll see the less-open option.

The above questions aren't as important to me as the below, however. The real question is what kind of SDK Apple will provide. Although it's not quite right to break this down into two categories (a sliding scale is probably better), I'm doing so anyway for the sake of a quick and dirty analysis:

  1. A "lite" SDK that offers "high level" access to the iPhone's operations but doesn't offer "low" level access that lets you get into the "guts" of the OS.
  2. a "full" SDK that really opens up the iPhone and enables all sorts of system-wide hacks and tweaks.

Obviously, if you haven't gathered by now, I'm hoping for the latter but expecting the former. If we receive the "lite" SDK, I fully expect the current Jailbreaking / app developing iPhone subculture to continue -- there are just too many people too interested in doing too many interesting things with the iPhone to stop it. It would be a real shame if Apple kept the sort of innovation that's happening with iPhone app development marginalized to those who are willing (and able!) to jailbreak their iPhone.

This fits into an overall feeling I have about the Smartphone industry, one I've expressed (perhaps in a flawed manner) over at WMExperts by saying that the iPhone isn't a smartphone. Here's the important bit:

It may have been crude, but Ballmer was exactly right when he chanted "DEVELOPERS DEVELOPERS DEVELOPERS!!."

It's almost impossible to state just how important 3rd party developers are to a platform like the iPhone. They're what make it a platform in the first place. The "fuller" the SDK, the better off we will all be. A full SDK will allow many -- if not most -- of our hassles with the iPhone to go away.

By making that claim, I'm disagreeing with a guy I don't often disagree with, John Gruber, who wrote over the weekend that:

To add third-party support for “corporate” email — by which he means Microsoft Exchange — you’d have to write your own entire email client. Possible, perhaps, but an enormous undertaking. And copy-and-paste? No way will that be something that a third-party developer can provide. The whole point of copy-and-paste is that it’s a service provided by the system, shared between all apps. To be clear, just like everyone else, I hope Apple does add copy-and-paste — but if it doesn’t come from Apple, it isn’t coming.

Yes, an email client is an "enormous undertaking," but it's one that many developers have successfully undertaken for both PalmOS and Windows Mobile -- sometimes with more success than the original developers of the platform. Given the many complaints about Apple's iPhone Mail client, I have little doubt that the same can (and will) be done for the iPhone.

As for cut-and-paste, it clearly is going to depend on whether or not we get a "full" SDK or a "lite" SDK. If it's a "full" one, then a developer will find a way--just like PalmOS developers found ways to alter the behavior of the Treo's LED, vibration, screen, alarm system, and more. The Windows Mobile Registry offers so much deep-level customization that it's almost difficult to believe. Will the iPhone SDK allow us to change the hated Marker Felt font in notes? I have to point out that changing the font on the PalmOS is fairly easy and it's even easier to change the font on Windows Mobile.

The point is that I fully believe that if Apple doesn't offer system-level improvements like cut-and-paste, somebody will eventually. The breadth, depth, and persistency of development on the other smartphone platforms and the "Jailbreaked" apps we currently have are both evidence that developers will always push a smartphone as far as it can go. (Heck, there's even a PalmOS emulator for the iPhone now.) I could be wrong -- the technical hurdles on the iPhone could be too great -- but I doubt it.

I hope that when these system-level improvements come, they'll be available to everybody, not just the people savvy enough to jailbreak their iPhone. If a delay means we'll get a fuller-featured SDK, then my response is simply Yes, please delay it.

Dieter Bohn

Dieter Bohn is former editor-in-chief of Smartphone Experts, writing across iMore, Windows Phone Central, Android Central, and more. You can find him on Twitter (and everywhere else) @backlon.

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