Screen grab: John Biehler

For those of you who are interested, Apple’s WWDC keynote has focused today on the iPhone 3G and the iPhone SDK. Macworld has a nice live blow-by-blow.

Here’s the bottom line for me. First, Apple has done an incredible job of demonstrating the potential of rich media apps in general, mobile and otherwise. They’ve showed off a powerful set of third-party applications that go beyond what most people think of on phones, including rich 3D, positional 3D audio (via OpenAL), and music apps. And it’s nice to see those rich media apps alongside things like push messaging. We’re seeing phones as mobile creative devices and not just as phones or even game systems. Music apps in particular prove to be massive hits with mainstream audiences, not just “pro audio” audiences. See our round-up of iPhone/iPod Touch music apps for a glimpse of what this can look like. Band, a set of software instruments, made an officially-sanctioned appearance right in the keynote to widespread cheers from a non-musician audience. And the fact that it’s official means you’ll get great new apps even without hacking your iPhone in the near future, as we hoped.

And this is, of course, what musicians and live visualists have been saying since the iPhone’s release: third-party software development, far beyond what Apple alone can imagine, is what really makes mobile devices interesting. Here on CDM, we’ve seen novel applications like VJs running live visuals in clubs and Pro Tools controllers, among other things, and now a lot of that is likely to become official. And given music apps for Nintendo portable game consoles and Palm and Windows Mobile PDAs, this should be no surprise. But what is a surprise, perhaps, is that mainstream audiences are excited about these things as we are.

We also now know the iPhone 3G will be US$199 and available in more countries, which means volume is likely to increase fast.

I don’t need to hype up the iPhone, though — I expect you’ve got the whole blogosphere for that. But platforms are about tradeoffs; there’s no such thing as a perfect platform. And with all the iPhone lust, we seem to be missing some of the downsides of Apple’s approach:

The major draw for some, the major downside for others: Apple’s development ecosystem is both its strong and weak point. But that means that as well-tailored as Apple’s environment is for some, an alternative could be for someone else — and that’s a good thing. Image: Phil Dokas
  • You have to wade through Apple’s reality distortion field to get at what’s really unique. 3G? GPS? A conventional headphone jack? Live maps? Push contact information? Online uploading? Let’s just be clear — some of this isn’t really news so much as Apple plugging obvious downsides of its version 1.0. And hyping up these features distracts from things that Apple is doing first (like shipping a real, rich media-savvy SDK).
  • Apple squeeze? Aside from another $100 subscription fee for data services, I think what’s silly is iPod Touch users having to cough up yet another ten bucks for a firmware update. Does $10 really make a difference? Of course not. That’s why it’s especially annoying. It’s like American Airlines’ new $15 bag fee. It’s just not something customers will feel good about. I’ve never had to pay for firmware for any device, let alone for a firmware update whose main feature is the ability to buy more stuff. (How about a $10 rebate for software purchases, at least?) Update: Commenter sqook points to an Engadget report in which the upgrade fee is an accounting requirement. Perhaps someone can explain why competing media players like the Zune and Archos seem to get firmware updates that add new features free. Updated again: Some of you have spoken up, and …well, let’s just leave it at this boils down to some legal issues I don’t fully understand. Let’s just swallow the ten bucks and go back to complaining about the MobileMe subscription fee. Unless that’s an accounting thing, too … sigh.
  • The developer tools aren’t free, and that means a lot. Sure, $100 isn’t much to pay for a development kit with which you can test on the device. (The free download is currently a beta and doesn’t include a license for testing or distribution.) But that’s just the beginning — think "free and open source." Compare NetBeans and Eclipse, open-source tools for mobile development. The open source tools run on any OS (Solaris, for crying out loud), whereas Xcode is Mac-only, Leopard-only, and even Intel-only. The open source tools tend to have (arguably) richer feature sets and wider communities. If they don’t do everything you want, you can easily customize them and extend them. That’s not to say some people aren’t happy with Xcode, but the free apps can offer more value to developers – and they’re getting better at a breakneck speed.
  • Apple’s platform tools don’t work elsewhere. Past mobile frameworks like JavaME/MIDP have certainly had their problems, but they allow developers to write apps that work in more places. Now, Apple may make a value proposition to developers that says its own platform is worth being on. (See also: Mac, Apple II.) But by definition, someone’s left out of the party – meaning there are other opportunities elsewhere.
  • Apple controls functionality and distribution. This one’s a little trickier, as it’s a glass half-empty/half-full situation. On the half-full side, Apple’s new developer store could make it easier for developers to sell software. On the half-empty side, the developer keeps only 70% of the revenue and remains at Apple’s whim. By contrast, I could write a Java app right now for Blackberry and various phones, put it on my website, and give it to anyone, which in the age of Google is a very valid way to sell software.
  • Sometimes Apple seems to have a one-track mind: I’m also disappointed that we still don’t have a hard disk iPod with the iPhone/Touch software interface. Keep in mind that the iPod is still Apple’s number one-selling device. And speaking of Apple’s bread and butter, while WWDC thankfully has three tracks (iPhone, Mac, IT) and plenty of Mac focus, the Mac seemed noticeably absent from the keynote today.

But my point isn’t really to criticize the iPhone — I think it’s a fantastic piece of work. Smart design and smart technology are about making trade-offs. Many of these downsides (Apple’s control over the development tools, APIs, and store) are upsides for some. But that means for each of these points there’s an opportunity for someone else.

Beyond Cupertino: The Multi-Platform Ecosystem

The OpenMoko may not woo you away from an iPhone, but developments in Linuxland could be coming to the mainstream very shortly — and that means they provide fully open-source alternatives for those who need or desire them. Photo: phauly.

The point is, Apple’s solution isn’t the only solution out there. And I think competition is what will make this whole area interesting — and more interesting still for iPhone lovers, too, because competition will keep the whole area moving. It’s important to note that, while Apple rightfully deserves credit for shipping something great and shipping it first, the enabling technologies aren’t necessarily from Apple.

The soul of the iPhone is, in generic terms:

  • New mobile processing technology with more brains and less power consumption
  • Increasingly-affordable display and touch technology
  • Desktop-class rich media capabilities: video, 3D, and sound. 
  • OpenGL ES mobile graphics, a new mobile standard for rich 3D
  • OpenAL positional audio, also an open standard
  • Desktop-class OS frameworks to put it all together

Apple’s implementation is indeed something special and something Apple owns. Their patent portfolio for multi-touch and gestures, for instance, is deep, and it’s stuff that isn’t easy to develop. And the way you develop on iPhone is dependent on their self-sufficient ecosystem of the Mac, Cocoa, Quartz (the display framework), and Xcode. And it’d be a mistake to underestimate the work they’ve done in hardware and UI design. But it’s also just one gadget, and part of what it demonstrates is the untapped potential of these technologies.

There are cross-platform, sometimes open-source ecosystems evolving, too, which could bear fruit in the long run:

  • Java, which is about to get a major kick in the pants from JavaFX (which includes new development tools, new media codec support, and the ability to work with other Java tools)
  • Linux, which arguably has a leg up on modularity and customization to different hardware configurations, and could wind up on quite a few devices
  • An open source development toolchain (likely to include development tools like NetBeans and Eclipse)
  • Google’s Android platform
  • Adobe’s Flash/Flex, which finally is getting more mobile-savvy and more open (at least in parts of the development chain and player)

That’s not to say this set of tools is superior to the iPhone/iPod Touch — on the contrary, so far, while there are some "smart" Linux devices out there, there’s not much shipping in quantity and the rich media toolset integration has a long way to go.

But is it a wide open playing field? Absolutely. And while the window of opportunity could close quickly, Linux and Java platforms have an opportunity to play for mobile development that they didn’t really get on the desktop. The ability to have an open alternative is likely to motivate both sides and create a more mature environment overall.

"Mobile" isn’t limited to phones, either — see the fun, LEGO modular-like do-everything, open-source BUG gadget. We hope to have some features on developing for it on CDM Labs soon. And there’s the GamePark Linux-based game console, as well; there are various reasons to think game-specific features may still have some appeal. (The DS isn’t losing any steam soon.)

The desktop could be transformed by these changes, too. Lower power consumption, richer media support, more affordable computing and display technologies, and easier cross-platform development all matter to music and visual software on laptops and desktop machines as much as handheld gadgets.

Google: unlikely to take this sitting down. But we are still waiting for a lust-inspiring Android-based phone, meaning the iPhone has a distinct edge. Photo: Zach Klein.

New Creativity, Hopefully Including the iPhone

Back to what this means for musicians and visualists, I think we’re about to see mobile devices that get some powerful and wonderful features alongside our computers. Think mobile apps with powerful recording, synthesis, music making, and effects capabilities, or VJs with mobile devices triggering videos right off their player or controlling computer visuals by remote multi-touch. (In other words, think about what we’ve been seeing — but just imagine more of it.)

The important thing is, the iPhone is just a part of this larger puzzle. Eventually, I think we’ll see Apple’s mobile devices benefit, as well, not only from Apple’s toolchain but multi-platform software as well — provided Apple doesn’t squash that kind of innovation by keeping it out of their store.

I’m not deluded. I know that crazy drum machines or VJ apps won’t exactly determine the fate of the mobile computing business. On the contrary, I think our role as artists is to show what can happen at the bleeding edge when we push these devices to be expressive. And I think people enjoy that it’s weird and not just business as usual. The technologies that will allow us to do that, though, are intimately tied to those that drive mainstream applications for sound and visuals.

Apple has raised the bar, no question. If its competitors are really listening, they’ll learn from what Apple is doing right — and see opportunities to do things differently, rather than just ape the iPhone blindly, to take advantage of what is on the flipside.

Being as this is CDM, I bring up this rant in part to tease out what I hope we’ll cover on the site, which is how to develop for some of the multi-platform tools; we’ll definitely be tracking that and the open-source development that happens as well as the proprietary goodies.

And if you all start reading this on your mobile device, I’d better start being less … verbose. (I know: I’ll type on my phone. That’ll fix it quick.)

  • sqook

    While I agree with most of your post, I just wanted to point out a few things while not trying to derail this into a flamewar:

    Does $10 really make a difference? Of course not. That’s why it’s especially annoying.

    Just to note, Apple claims that their shareholders are putting them up to this, because they need to charge something in exchange for offering new features (more info on the debate here). I'm not saying this is necessarily right; and it does annoy me as an iPod touch owner, but I was actually sort of surprised today since I was expecting the 2.0 update to cost at lest 20$, not 10$.

    The developer tools aren’t free, and that means a lot

    Ok, this is just plain wrong. You can easily download the SDK at free of charge and tinker around all you want. 99$ lets buys you a license that lets you distribute apps via iTunes (for any price you set); this price covers both the extra support you would receive for a developer license at this "tier", and the general costs of hosting + distribution.

    And speaking of reality distortion fields, let's get one thing straight: open source != better software. I grant, there are a lot of great pieces of OSS software out there, but just by virtue of the fact that it's OSS does not mean it is inherently superior software. Eclipse, for example, is a joke compared to VC++. "Full-featured" doesn't even come close to describing it… more like, "modular, but you need to write the modules yourself".

  • rogerthat

    i actually heard it was the FCC that requires apple to charge for any upgrade that isnt a bug fix but has feature updates… dirty rumor?

  • Thanks for the feedback, sqook.

    To sqook, rogerthat: If someone can explain how Apple is required to charge for firmware updates with new features when Microsoft, Archos, Nintendo, and other vendors have no such requirement for players and other devices, I'm all ears. This is in fact what was reported, but as you'll see from the Engadget report, enabling new software features just doesn't add up to any kind of rationalization under that requirement. Now, knowing the law, that's not saying it isn't right — like I said, I'm all ears.

    sqook: I don't believe that saying the full SDK is $99 is "just plain wrong." The whole point of a developer SDK for a device is to be able to develop for the device. In the case of the "free" SDK, you can only run in a simulator. Now, granted, the same is true of Google's Android developer tool, but at the moment that's because there *is* no device. If I could run Xcode but couldn't compile the app and run it on my Mac, Xcode wouldn't be free, either. And if Google's developer tool doesn't, I'll say it isn't free, too. 🙂

    I'll try to avoid a platform war between Eclipse, NetBeans, Virtual C++, and Xcode. Let's at least say that to many developers, the functionality that Eclipse and Netbeans have gotten because of the open source communities around them has been appealing. And likewise, I believe these apps are more easily extensible than Xcode. As I said, some people are perfectly happy with Xcode, but at least for some, the "freeness" of the alternatives has appeal. That's not saying open source is "inherently superior." I never said that. On the contrary, I think the whole point is the specific value proposition, which in the case of NetBeans and Eclipse starts out with more flexibility in what you use as your dev machine (i.e., you don't have to go buy a Mac), and continues to some of the functionality and extensibility of those IDEs.

    Eclipse has the CDT, plenty of mature plug-ins, and plenty of functionality baked into the IDE, so I don't think it's fair to say that you have to write modules yourself. Maybe the result *isn't* as productive for you as Virtual C++; that's fair.

  • Oh, and to add — these arguments are circular.

    If you do need the developer chain / open source tools, then you'll use that. If Apple's stuff suits you better, you'll use that. I don't think we'll ever boil it down to an "A is better than B" for that reason because it's specific to the developer task. That's why I kept saying, hey, this isn't even a criticism. To one person, the glass is half empty, to another, it's half full. I just felt it was appropriate to talk about the flipside.

  • MonksDream

    Good article Peter! As a Canuck I'm excited that we'll finally be seeing the iPhone north of the 49th. THe thought of what Rogers is likely to charge for their data service makes me quake with fear though.

    One thing I've not seen mentioned is Flash support. Just about any video-enabled site (including this one) requires it and not having it is the single biggest frustration I have with my iPod Touch. I suspect it's a question of Apple controlling developer access to the device. In other words: if developers can write Flash apps that will run in the browser they won't have to go through the AppStore. Any truth to this?

  • Unfortunately, WWDC didn't really offer much in the way of developer news — actually, *anything* in the way of developer news in terms of the keynote. And technically, the rest of the conference is covered under NDA … though I suspect if either Sun (Java) or Adobe (Flash) had anything to announce, they'd work with Apple to talk about it. I think it is about control, yes, and concerns that Flash and Java would reduce Apple's ability to control the quality of experience and would introduce security vulnerabilities. That said, yes, I'd love to have both, and I'm sure Adobe and Sun would, too. So I guess we see if anything new comes of that.

  • Side note: it should be technically possible to embed H.264 videos in webpages and support iPhone's browser that way. It does identify itself as an iPhone/iPod, so web developers could support that.

  • Danny

    Great post. I'm not sure how the engadget link supports the idea that an upgrade charge is required since in it the writer/attorney says that that explanation, "strikes us as being a pretty big stretch". For me Jobs lost credibility when he claimed that they couldn't offer 3rd party apps because they would take down the cellular network. Some people somehow bought this despite the fact that you can connect a computer to a cellular network.

    This isn't to say that the iPhone isn't a cool platform – but it is to say that Jobs isn't the guy to get the stone cold truth about it. I'm glad peter is here with a bit of perspective!

    I think you are right about flash – adobe has said they'd like to see it on the iphone even despite apple. It is also strange to me that competing media solutions, like slingbox, have developed iphone apps but couldn't get official dev status. Not a good sign.

    >FCC that requires apple to charge for any upgrade that isnt a bug fix but has feature updates… dirty rumor?

    More like fanboy justifying.

  • techno acid music&#0

    im so excited with the idea of being able to produce music by pressing virtual buttons that are 2 times smaller than my fingers on a 300$ device. i think im gonna get rid of my laptop and all my DAW's. yeah.. that's it!

  • We haven't seen the end of new product introductions.

    Expect a new iPod Touch model soon — Apple is currently running a promotion to give away free iPod Touches with Macs for education customers. That means they are going to be introducing new Touch and they have a warehouse full of the current model.

  • this_is_why

    Revenue Recognition is the reason Apple has to charge for the update on the iPod touch.

    They accounted for all these updates (i.e. new features) into the price of an iPhone. They must not have accounted for any new features being added for the iPod Touch. If a company releases a free update which has new features in it, it only means that you essentially paid for the updates in advance when purchasing the product. I'm pretty sure we have Enron to thank for this one.

  • Interesting, though that raises more questions for me. Taking the example of Zune … is Microsoft accounting purchase price differently? Are they actually arguably out of compliance? Are they reading the same law differently? It's certainly hard to me to read the intent of the revenue recognition law as being applicable here, but I'm not a lawyer.

  • poorsod

    As an Ipod Touch owner, for me the glass is completely full. I am getting new stuff that I was not expecting, whatever way you look at it.

    I paid the full price for my ipod about three months ago (and it's still slightly unbelievable); I don't know when the announcement about official 3rd-party app support was made but I bought it not expecting any app support ever.

    Later on a friend told me about jailbreaking. Economically speaking this is an unexpected bonus against the cost/benefit of me buying it when I did, because with the information I had at the time (I wasn't expecting *any* third-party apps) I was still happy to pay full price for it. It was even more amazing after the jailbreak.

    Now that they are adding an official route in for developers, well, the way I see it that just means more apps for me – another bonus against the price of the ipod. The jailbreak path will remain open (though perhaps not as popular) so from now on I will be getting apps from two sources.

    Whether you think the charging is fair or not will be reflected in whether you buy the update or not. I will be; $10 (£5) is nothing.

  • @poorsod: good to hear. And I will say, I've heard lots and lots of happy jailbreakers!

  • A Good thoughtful post. One thought about your point

    "Apple controls functionality and distribution."

    Where this might not be ideal for developers, it does seem to be in line with Apple's strategy to move more and more into the "content delivery" business. Not only is this visible with iTunes, but also in hardware. The Apple Air without an optical Drive and HD players not available for their computers. These are not necessary when all content will be delivered.

    This is not necessarily a "bad" thing – we will have to wait to see.


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