Game controller support in iOS 7 is a step in the right direction

Introducing iOS 7 at WWDC last week, Apple's Craig Federighi mentioned MFi game controller support in passing. Apple's announcement has long-term ramifications for iOS 7 as viable gaming platform.

Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod

MFi is a licensing program Apple offers to developers. It enables hardware makers to certify that their products are up to Apple's spec for peripherals that work with for iPod, iPhone or iPad. The program's been around for a while, and if you've ever seen the "Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad" stamp on the box for a speaker system or peripheral, their manufacturer is part of the program.

Developers involved in the program gain access to hardware and software they need to make their devices compatible and up to spec with Apple's rigorous guidelines. More than just that, MFi is a necessity for any company that wants to make a hardware product sold in Apple retail stores or by Apple authorized resellers.

Game controllers for iOS devices have been around for a while, but up until now, they haven't really had Apple's full sanction. Successful devices like Ion Audio's iCade system have been able to work around MFi by going through Bluetooth instead.

A change of heart?

Games are already the biggest single category in the App Store, so it's entirely reasonable that Apple should bolster support for game devices with the MFi program. Apple has insisted for years that the right way to interact with iOS devices is by using the touch interface to its full potential. But game developers and critics have also insisted for years that many titles for iOS are hamstrung by the absence of proper game controller support.

Games that are created from the ground up for iOS, and ones that are really cleverly designed to work on touch interfaces, won't benefit from game controller support in iOS 7. But there are hundreds, if not thousands of games that will.

MFi is only one piece of the puzzle. Apple has also created a development framework to standardize the way game controllers should work on iOS, to make sure users get a consistent experience from device to device.

iOS, and the devices that operate it, aren't suddenly going to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo for dominance of the gaming market, and controller support in iOS 7 isn't going to change that. iOS is, first and foremost, a general-purpose operating system designed to appeal to a broad swath of consumers. Some technology Apple has developed for gamers is obvious, like Game Center. Other stuff is more under the hood - OpenGL 4 support in OS X 10.9, for example.

But by embracing support for third party game controllers, Apple shows that it is open to change, and that it's willing to extend the iOS user experience in ways that it has been very reluctant to in the past. And that's a good thing for iOS users and developers alike.

Peter Cohen