Shallow Depth of Field
Sometimes, my friends, fate smiles upon you.
You see, often it’s hard for me to write about topics that are of breaking concern in the Mac community because I have a particular interest in the outcome. I bend over backward to make absolutely certain that I present both sides of the story fairly, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Then, there’s writing about the iPhone. You see, I don’t have one, because I don’t have AT&T service. And until my friends who do aren’t constantly cursing dropped calls, I have no intention of switching carriers and buying an iPhone. My contract’s come up for renewal, come and gone, and I just couldn’t pull the switch.
So it’s been a pleasure to sit on the sideline and watch the debate over user-installable iPhone applications. The object of my current cellular misery is a T-Mobile SDA with Windows Mobile, which you can technically install your own applications on. Let’s just say I don’t think that feature has improved my phone, your choice of software being generally limited to “programs that are not useful but are well-written” and “programs that are not useful and are poorly written.” I have yet to find one that I would keep.
I’m curious to see exactly what user-installable iPhone applications will provide over the Web interfaces that are currently available. Apple announced the iPhone software development kit on March 6, along with an announcement of enterprise-friendly features, and so far I’ve heard much discussion of the limitations and freedoms of the SDK but not much by way of the sorts of applications that might be forthcoming. Macworld published a wishlist, and so did Brent Simmons but that’s about all.
Anyway, let’s talk about what is out there this month.
Jesper, of Waffle, came up with a fantastic scorecard for the announcement (live-blogged very well by Macworld). The verdict was that it came out better than he expected, but I’m not sure how to explain his methodology concisely. Just read it; it’ll make more sense than if I tried.
But Jesper’s excitement at the technical specifics is vastly eclipsed by 37signals’ Jason Fried’s enthusiasm. Fried writes, “What we saw today was the beginning of two-decades of mobile domination by Apple. What Microsoft and Windows was to the desktop, Apple and Touch will be to mobile.” The key, if you ask Fried, is that the existing platforms (Palm, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Symbian) are in many ways lackluster and lack traction. If Apple can capitalize on the success in a way that they couldn’t in the PC arena, Fried argues, it may be a long time before anything comes along that can displace the iPhone’s success.
He’s seconded by a whole host of commenters who love the idea behind the iPhone application store: Craig Hockenberry, for instance, observes that Apple’s 30 percent cut on the price of the software is fair for their handling of downloading, payment processing, and some of the promotional footwork:
Those things pale in comparison to the value of being associated with the Apple brand. Having their explicit stamp of approval and being included in the App Store will make any product more appealing to a customer. Buying directly from Apple means that your software won’t screw up their phone and that can be returned if it doesn’t live up to expectations. That, combined with the ease of a single click purchase, is going to drive a lot of sales. You’ll make up that 30% without even trying.
Jens Alfke sees, in the potential of an application sold for 99 cents, the ultimate impulse buy, like a pack of gum at the grocery store checkout line. And Panic’s Steven Frank thinks the company’s 30 percent fee pays for the best promotion money can buy: Apple’s.
Out of Focus
The real bone most developers had to pick was on a specific restriction imposed by the iPhone SDK: third-party applications can’t run in the background.
John Gruber had a nice overview of what this means, and how the iPhone handles background applications currently. He writes:
The iPhone is severely resource constrained. Battery, RAM, and CPU cycles are all severely limited. If third-party apps could run in the background, all three could suffer. RAM would suffer for sure; all running apps consume memory. The iPhone has just 128 MB of RAM, and no swap space. CPU performance and battery life would suffer when background apps do something—and if they’re not doing anything, what’s the point of keeping them running?
He followed that up with a couple of posts about the other side of the argument. But even then, he asks, “How are typical users—not Ian Betteridge, not me, and probably not you, but typical users—supposed to know which apps are causing the problem?”
Craig Hockenberry returns with a nice post on background applications. His early versions of Twitterrific for the iPhone polled the Twitter server every five minutes, but that had a significant impact on battery life, so he scaled back his ambitions. After all, he asks, what happens if you have more than one application polling regularly at different intervals? He tries to imagine a notification-based system for polling, where the OS could send all running background applications an alert that it was opening up a connection—and then says, “Do I expect such a sophisticated system to be available in a beta of version 1.0? Hell no. And neither should you.” (And he has an interesting argument to be made, later, that the limited real estate on a phone requires a completely different set of notification models for background applications.)
But Jens Alfke (seeing a theme?) begs to disagree. He thinks that it must be possible, since other phone systems use IM application services, for instance, and that requires a persistent connection. These persistent connections are more efficient than polling, and he wonders to what degree it’s possible to work around the technical limitations. (I’d like to note that at least on my phone, the IM client appears to piggy-back off of the SMS notification service and connect to the IM server using a push-based proxy.)
Rogue Amoeba’s Paul Kafasis has a laundry list of things he wants from the iPhone SDK, which he’s published as a list of bugs filed with Apple. He, too, hooks on to background applications. I wonder what it is about that that’s captured developers’ imagination.
Just Plain Bad Vision
- Sven-S. Porst has a great round-up on how localized application names work. Apparently, there are some weird flaws having to do with inconsistencies in documentation, shortcut keys, and translation issues. Anyway, it was an enjoyable read. He also wrote a great explanation on how Time Machine works, which is also pretty cool.
- The next version of Internet Explorer will be standards-compliant. Gasp: imagine that. It only took Microsoft how many years?
- New York Times tech-blogger David Pogue got his hands on some hilarious tech-support transcripts. “Listen. I’m pressing Control, eh? And nothing’s happening, eh?” Oh, my goodness.
- Charlie Rose, PBS’ newscaster, got himself injured rescuing a MacBook Air that he believed was in imminent danger. Let’s just recap: Charlie Rose, he of the immaculate personal appearance on broadcast television, chose to rescue a new computer over protecting his own appearance. Wow.
- M.B. Darden went to an Apple Store for the first time, apparently, in a while. He discovered that they’re quite the happening place at malls, even when they aren’t busy, and that the PC war is over and Apple has won. Isn’t that interesting? You’ll enjoy the rest of it, too.
And that’s all for March, folks. Come back next month, and maybe I’ll finally have gotten around to buying a phone that doesn’t run on Windows. If nothing else, there’s always some Mac news to write about, hmm?