Apple’s iPhone prototype is a beautiful culmination of user interface design and industrial/product design. But the core of the product really is its multi-touch interface, which should gratify readers of this site. Almost from the moment this site was founded, you’ve advocated the possibilities of touch and multi-touch interfaces. CDM first covered the JazzMutant Lemur (later distributed by Max/MSP powerhouse Cycling ’74) in November 2004, and readers of CDM were pouring over the interface possibilities of multi-touch as revealed in Apple’s patents back in February, along with experimental, projected multi-touch interfaces and even Windows multi-touch.
Musicians, after all, understand the importance of physical interfaces — it’s the essence of musical performance, and anyone who works with MIDI is intimate with the process of translating gestures into numbers.
So now the iPhone is (almost) here. It’s a brilliant design that, unlike my Windows Mobile-based UT Starcom VX6700, seems to actually understand what a phone is.
With months left until release, a lot could change. But, while I’m very excited about the iPhone’s design, two major questions concern me:
1. Will Apple lock down the iPhone, blocking Flash, Java, custom widgets, and open development from its new platform?
2. Could Apple’s multi-touch patents actually stifle growth of new, interactive displays?
While a lot of CDMers looked at iPhone and thought “that’d make a nifty music controller”, a possibility that now seems more remote, these questions of course have much deeper implications. So, with everyone else to ooh and ahh over Apple’s as-yet-unreleased phone (check out the hilarious faux unboxing), I get the chance to play skeptic.
The Closed iPhone
I ask this as a question, but so far, it looks as though Apple has already decided the iPhone will be an entirely closed box — no development. In fact, the real question perhaps should be, “Will the Mac community and technology press scream bloody murder until Apple opens the iPhone to third-party development?”
An update to that FAQ says even more, and illustrates why I find this upsetting.
Jobs on Java: “Java’s not worth building in. Nobody uses Java anymore. It’s this big heavyweight ball and chain.” Okay, now there I’ll have a tough time arguing — for Web applets, most Java developers will even agree the runtime loads too slowly. But —
Jobs on Flash — it’s a “maybe”, but read this: “Yeah, YouTube—of course. But you don’t need to have Flash to show YouTube. All you need to do is deal with YouTube. And plus, we could get ‘em to up their video resolution at the same time, by using h.264 instead of the old codec.”
And this, of course, is the Bad Apple. The whole point of the Web is independent publishing and standard formats. That’s what gives us the freedom to run this site, what gives many of you the freedom to begin distributing music and videos you’ve created independent from large, corporate gatekeepers. Apple is instead using their tight control over devices to make themselves the gatekeeper — we’ll deal with YouTube and make them do what we want, rather than build in a player that would let you see 100% of the Web on our communicator device. (Incidentally, Flash is a player, not a codec per se, so just switching to H.264 is not an improvement in “quality.” And Flash Player gives you additional flexibility that QuickTime and H.264 do not.)
Some Apple fans I talked to at Macworld last week thought this whole issue wasn’t even worth discussing — some because they’re so excited about iPhone, others because of a strange, resigned attitude to something they thought they couldn’t change. Yet iPhone is not iPod: it’s really a portable computer. Apple touted technologies that are developer tools, from OS X app development to Core Animation (the animation API upcoming in Leopard). It’s not just that you can develop for other devices and not the iPhone — it’s that the iPhone is the first portable device a lot of people would actually want to develop for. If Apple really is turning their back on open development, they’re turning their back on what made the Mac great. OS X with iApps and the pro apps pales in comparison to Macs running third-party software. It might just be one utility that makes the difference.
“But it’s just a phone.” Well, I have two arguments to that. The first is, it only takes one user-installable app to make a difference. For the server admins at Macworld Expo, Terminal and ssh topped the discussion list. For a student, it might be German-language flash cards. The point is, who owns your device — you, or Apple? (ssh utilities and flash card apps are both available on Palm and Windows Mobile, I might add.) My Windows phone is a clunky beast. But I now have PuTTY on it, so I can keep an eye on CDM’s servers.
The second argument is, take a look at other phones. Jaymis from the CDM staff just bought a Nokia 6233. (He’s in Australia, so the iPhone may be a long time coming.) The iPhone will work only on Cingular, and — unless you pay $1/minute or more — only in the US until it gets regional launches. Jaymis’ Nokia 6233 works anywhere in the world, on any GSM plan. It supports Adobe’s Flash Lite player. It supports Java. It’ll run the mobile version of the open source art programming tool Processing. You can connect it to a computer and use it as a modem, or directly access its SMS facility. It has an open SDK — actually, typically two SDKs for developers, one from the carrier, and one from the manufacturer. It’ll sync your contacts from Mac — and Windows, too. I could go on, but for a cheap, available-now, “legacy” phone, the 6233 has lots that the iPhone lacks. Not everyone needs all of these features, but anyone might need any one of them, particularly if someone else develops an app they need. And it seems with Mac OS X at its core, the iPhone could have the openness of this device, but allow developers to create Mac-like, elegant applications that people will actually use.
It’s hard to say at this point what Apple will actually do by June; most developers I talked to at Macworld held out hope Apple will unveil open development at WWDC, despite the on-the-record statements by Apple’s CEO to the contrary. But if it’s not a done deal, that seems to me all the more reason to start complaining now.
Music Apps with Flash?
I’ll close this discussion with one positive note: Jobs, when interviewed, didn’t rule out the possibility of Adobe Flash on the iPhone. Aside from giving you 100% of the Web instead of a fraction (a goal Jobs himself set for iPhone), Flash would offer some interesting niche applications. It would allow us a door by which you could write music applications, either self-contained ones that use the headphone-out jack, or tools that turn the multi-touch screen into a controller for music software. That may only appeal to readers here, but it would be cool, and we will be watching — especially after the Nintendo DS and Wii have recently been converted into music tools. And beyond our niche, it suggests just how much opens up when you don’t close the box.
It’s, of course, Apple’s prerogative to close their phone if they want to. But the other area of concern is Apple’s patent claims for multi-touch interfaces. Back in the Macworld Speaker’s Lounge, a couple of us were joking that Apple now owned all gestures. (One hand gesture comes to mind if that’s the case.)
A couple of moments in the keynote were a little disturbing. Jobs claimed Apple “invented” multi-touch interfaces (or implied as much; he may have meant the specific technological implementation in iPhone). He also promised to aggressively defend Apple’s patents.
Before we fly off the handle with this, though, I’m not sure, to be honest, what that means. Apple may mean they’ll defend their patents, having just protected iPod from litigation by Creative Labs. Or, it could mean that Apple will go after other companies using these types of gestures and multi-touch interfaces, neither of which Apple invented. (The Lemur multimedia interface, shown here, comes to mind — and it supports much more sophisticated multi-touch and gestural input than the iPhone.)
I hope that Apple doesn’t become the bad guys of gestural intellectual property. I think, though, it’s more likely that they do intend to play defense rather than legal offense. I bring up this issue in part to see if readers here, who time and again prove themselves far better-educated than I am on a host of issues, know something I don’t. (Very likely.)
This much is certain: as multi-touch interfaces spread, there will be some nasty intellectual property fights involving someone. I can hardly wait.