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Whether you care about the iPhone or not, the Summer of iPhone Development reveals a lot about where mobile computing, and mobile music creation, might be headed. That includes Apple’s challenges as well as its accomplishments.

Despite the hype around Apple’s platform, the iPhone and iPod Touch have some strengths and weaknesses, just as any platform does. The strengths you probably know well by now: slick UIs, rich, mobile-optimized developer tools, and a device people love. That has given us some interesting, genuinely-useful music tools amidst the toys and novelties, demonstrating how even a niche can benefit from development capabilities. But the tight development and distribution restrictions, imposed by Apple and their exclusive US service provider AT&T, have compounded some of the negatives of the device. The result is a platform that has some developers raving and some ranting (sometimes simultaneously).

The big news for digital musicians, specifically, is that restrictions created by Apple may keep some music apps from shipping, or for supporting Apple’s official, exclusive SDK and store.

Case in point: the tasty-looking MIDI controller you see above hasn’t made it into the store – and it’s not alone. If the developer were able to distribute it, you’d have it right now. With Apple controlling the store, you might have it tomorrow, or next month, or never – the frustrating thing being, the developer doesn’t even know. And poor communication in regards to the store is just one challenge that’s turning some developers off from Apple’s device.

Digital music creation was built on the openness of the Windows, Mac, Linux, and even Palm and Windows Mobile platforms. That means the situation with Apple’s locked-down development channels is one to watch closely. It also could mean the jailbroken, hacked iPhone platform is here to stay — and that competing platforms could gain some ammunition from Apple’s relatively closed nature.

Not All Developers Are Happy

It goes without saying that some of Apple’s moves have made some developers very happy indeed. The iPhone/iPod Touch is a platform that strikes a unique balance between desktop-class functionality and what’s needed on a mobile device. Developers have complained that platforms like PalmOS or Java ME are overly stripped-down for mobiles, whereas Windows Mobile isn’t optimized enough and is too much like the desktop OS. Apple has done a lot to balance those concerns and wrap it into a beautifully-designed UI and hardware. (To see just how much they’ve done, look no further than AppleInsider’s iPhone 2.0 critique. Even as they complain about the iPhone’s flaws, they note the ways in which competing devices are worse.)

But that doesn’t mean all of Apple’s developers are happy campers. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the complaints:

Hello, world. Hello, annoyed developers. (Hey, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, right? So keep complaining!) SDK photo: Phil Dokas.

Apple won’t let some developers on their device. StyleTap, a platform that emulates Palm OS, is now forced to run on the jailbroken iPhone, because Apple won’t let non-native software on their device. (Bhajis Loops on the iPhone could be possible, music fans, but only if you hack your iPhone or iPod.) Other victims include Java, Python, Flash — major tools that make up the current computer ecosystem and would also be powerful for digital musicians and visualists. Now, of course, arguably this protects Apple’s quality control and helps AT&T control the apps on their network – except that plenty of other phones have exactly the same capabilities, including phones on AT&T that ship in greater quantity. And many of these are perfectly reliable, whereas the iPhone 2.0 update was, at least initially, plagued by crashes. It’s Apple’s choice to do this, of course – just as it’s your choice to buy or develop for a different device, if you like.

Apple is failing to communicate with developers. Apple has complete control of the iTunes-based App Store — without it, you can’t install apps on the device. Maybe that would be fine, if developers felt that they could communicate with Apple. But Rogue Amoeba, a long-time, loyal Apple audio developer, reports that the road to approval is broken for many developers. ("Broken" is his word, not mine.) Rogue’s Paul Kafasis isn’t bugged by the exclusiveness of the store so much as that "Ultimately, the problem here is with communications, or lack thereof, from Apple." (Paul regularly covers iPhone innards for O’Reilly Digital Media blog.)

That story was written at the beginning of June. The problem is, it’s now August, and things don’t seem to have gotten better. Now, developers often complain (they’re very much like users in that way). But there’s an unusual level of frustration with getting onto the App Store, and the reports are fairly consistent:

Apple Developer Discussion Forum

Maybe this is a logjam because the store is new and popular, so I think final judgment is reserved for later. But clearly, if Apple is to defend their choice of total control over the store, they have to fix the problem eventually. After all, there are plenty of other gadgets which don’t require you to go through one vendor just to ship an app. Want to install something to your Symbian, Windows Mobile, Palm, or even Blackberry device? You just go and do it; you don’t have to check with your vendor or your mobile carrier first. So the burden is clearly on Apple to demonstrate that their choice was the right one.

Apple is gagging developers and making coding harder. Apple has placed an Non Disclosure Agreement on their developer tools, including all details of how the device works and how to run software on it. Initially, this occurred during the beta, but it appears now, with the store, the firmware update, and the developer kit all officially shipping, it’ll last forever. Ars Technica’s Chris Foresman goes into detail about all the problems this can cause. It boils down to this: developers can’t get and share information, can’t even go to Amazon to buy a good book on development, and the quality and stability of the entire platform can’t reach its full potential as a result.

Again, I can’t think of another precedent like this. I expect there are similar restrictions placed on gaming consoles, but that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing — just ask a a developer for gaming consoles. And would it really cause the universe to implode if you could buy a good book on iPhone development, or read a developer blog that gives you tips for how to write good apps?

iTouchMidi, the MIDI App You Can’t Have (Yet)

As a case study in how this can break down and keep you from doing something cool with the iPhone you just bought, I just heard from Nonnus, the developer of a set of MIDI controller apps for iPhone. You should be able to download these now, free, from the iTunes App Store. But you can’t.

This case reveals just how delayed many apps are. The developer applied to the program essentially when it was launched, months ago. The app itself is approved. Yet contract foul-ups are keeping that app from getting to you. It might seem a small thing,

i was one of the first ones to register as iphone dev,
but due to the lack of info that program registration was limited to the first 4000
i got locked out of early processing
on the july 12 i was finally able to join the dev program,
allowing me to start up the itunes store account and all contractual process
i have submitted all requested info weeks ago and have never received any feedback about this
yet all my contracts, including free apps one are still pending setup
regarding itouchmidi:
the first app was submitted on the 20 th of july
on the 28 i got a reply stating the iTouchMidi name was not accepted because of the iTouch part
i did not really understand or agreed as there is no apple product with this name,
and if it is scheduled it is not really my problem…
anyway, i did not want to delay anything or felt i could do anything about it
so i changed the name to iTM Midilab for the first app
in the meanwhile i have also submitted iTM Matrix, iTM Keys and iTM XYPad
last saturday, august 3, i received feedback that all the  apps had been aproved
but as the contracts are still pending setup the apps will not go to the store,
even though they are free (for now…)
although dev support response has never been great,
probably due to the sheer number of requests they have
they have always replied to previous questions or issues
but since august 3,
i have tried to contact them several times for different support depts
itunes admin, itsvendor, devprograms
and have received absolutely no reply except one from itunes admin telling me to contact devprograms
wich i had already done…
today is august 6, i still have received no reply
all apps are pending contract,
i already have new versions that i am unable to upload and take some little advantage of the lockup to improve user experience
(also asked about this in these last emaisl sent)
i am really starting to feel something terribly wrong is going on
as i am sure that 72 hours of silence to all info / support request is not normal at all
maybe i am getting paranoid but i start to feel iTouchMidi is being deliberately locked out from the store / public

Just a nuisance? Sure, possibly. You can imagine that a developer who has put time and effort into writing something would be more than a bit annoyed, though. And it’s not isolated, based on what we’re hearing from other developers, large and small.

This does seem fixable to me. But the issue is that contract hold-ups have created a massive app log-jam in the store, which is likely to shake some of the confidence of Apple’s developer community. I suppose if I wanted to be paranoid, I could suggest that Apple is blocking Nonnus’ apps because they’re planning a MIDI controller of their own – and they do have the patent portfolio suggesting just those kinds of applications.

More likely, though, this just sounds like a pattern of administrative screw-ups that are slowing down the store. But that does weaken the argument for Apple having a monopoly on app distribution. (Apple, as you’ll recall, were the ones who told us what a great idea this would be.) And whatever you as a user might think, I can tell you that is scaring away at least some developers.

(For Nonnus’ part, he says he’s "just complaining [about] the current state of things.")

Why All of This Matters

The iPhone and iPod Touch clearly aren’t for everyone. But they demonstrate some of the potential of some important technologies:

  • Mobile, portable devices
  • Low energy-consumption, low-heat platforms
  • Multi-touch interfaces
  • The Mac platform

Moreover, before iPhone fans start accusing me again of Apple bashing, I always believe a technology worth using is a technology worth criticizing. For all my own personal skepticism, I’m constantly reminded at how incredible and unique some of Apple’s accomplishments are. I would hope anyone working on mobile development at least considers what they’ve done as a result — even as I hope people do come up with interesting competing tools. But there’s no question "worth criticizing" applies, on many levels.

Music is a great measure of how platforms work for development, because of how demanding music apps are of interface and performance. We also have a deeper relationship with them, because we use them to be expressive. That’s why it’s worth bringing up these issues on this site.

The Apple operating system isn’t Linux, and even as a fan of Linux, I’m not sure it should be. But there are other issues here that go beyond even open source or free software development, and strike at whether we’ll even be able to talk about development or run the apps we want. If that changes, computing could look very different than it does today.