Some Apple press events are full of surprises. Others are...surprisingly dull. Friday's iPhone software event was one of the few that was neither of the above. The news involved a lot of things that were not shocking-in some cases because of leaks in the last few days, and in some cases because they simply made sense. (Even the implementation of Microsoft's ActiveSync on the iPhone is just so darn logical that it felt natural and obvious.) But in this case, the obvious was also exciting.
Which is why I came away mostly enthusiastic about the day's news and the future of this platform. Even the most controversial aspect of all this-that Apple wants to be the only distributor of native iPhone apps-seems more good than bad given that the App Store looks to be by far the best software delivery system ever devised for a mobile device. An awful lot of iPhone users are going to want applications of all sorts, and they're going to go to the App Store to get them. If I were a software developer, I'd be champing at the bit to reach 'em that way, not grumbling that I can't sell software directly. On the other hand, I presume that third-party phone software resellers like Handango are bummed out by the prospect of being denied access to the iPhone ecosystem.
So twelve hours after the event ended, I'm...happy. Even though I don't own an iPhone. I do have a question or two about all this, though. Ten of them, actually:
1. Where was Microsoft? Today's event included a parade of representatives from other companies -- EA, Salesforce.com, AOL, Epocrates, Sega-applauding the day's news. But the most surprising development to come out of the event was fact that Apple is building support for Microsoft's ActiveSync into the iPhone -- and no Microsoft exec graced the stage. There wasn't even a slide of enthusiastic boilerplate support from the behemoth of Redmond. Did Apple not want Microsoft there? Did Microsoft not want to be there? I dunno. But it's always a little uncomfortable when Apple and Microsoft jump into bed together. (Remember Bill Gates getting booed during Jobs's 1997 Macworld Expo keynote?)
2. What, no iChat? The iPhone's SMS application looks like the Mac's iChat, but it's texting, not instant messaging. Until today, I was assuming-or at least hoping --that it would evolve into a full-blown IM client. But today's event involved AOL showing an AIM client. It looked pretty good, but is it a sign that Apple has no plans to roll out real iChat for the iPhone, a move which would effectively render AIM for the iPhone redundant? Or maybe AIM for iPhone is a placeholder while Apple works on iPhone? That doesn't make sense, though, given that the whole point of today's AIM demo was that AOL was able to put the app together in a couple of weeks. I'm having trouble reading the tea leaves here...
3. What'll be prohibited? When Steve Jobs explained that all third-party native iPhone apps would be distributed exclusively through Apple, he said that it wouldn't permit everything, listing porn, privacy-invading apps, and bandwidth hogs as examples of software that would be a no-go. Later, in answer to questions from the audience, he said that VoIP would be permitted only over Wi-Fi, not over the cell network, and that (surprise!) iPhone-unlocking apps would be taboo. But I'd love to know what other programs won't make the grade. "Bandwidth hog" covers a lot of ground, potentially, including many apps that compete with Apple's own iTunes Store media offerings. (Then again, maybe nobody will find it worthwhile to compete with Apple when it comes to core iPod functions) A BitTorrent-over-cell client would likely be forbidden. But how about a BitTorrent-over-Wi-Fi one? How about Slingbox's mobile player or other TV streaming applications?
4. How will companies know if their programs are verboten? Sounds like nobody will bother to write porn, spyware, VoIP-over-cell, or unlocking apps under the assumption that Apple will distribute them. But how about, say, a photo-sharing app which might or might not be unacceptably piggy from a bandwidth standpoint? Will anybody write useful and interesting apps and then discover it's impossible to get them to customers?
5. Will anyone figure out how to distribute iPhone apps without going through Apple? Probably. Will Apple do its damnedest to make it hard, possibly through software updates that obstruct any alternate routes onto the phone or which disable apps that have snuck their way there already? Probably.
More iPhone Software Questions
6. Are there any killer apps out there? The Apple II's killer app was Visicalc-which was a third-party program which didn't exist when the II was released. The IBM PC's killer app was Lotus 1-2-3-which was a third-party app which didn't exist when the PC was released. The Mac's killer app was PageMaker-which was a third-party app which didn't exist when the Mac was released. You get the idea. There are going to be a lot of really nifty iPhone apps written in the years to come-even more so given the incentive of the iFund announced today. Is there a program yet to be written that'll turn out to be the phone's defining application? I don't have a clue, but I hope so.
7. Will the iPhone be a killer gaming handheld? The demos of Spore and Super Monkey Ball we saw this morning were cool, and it's clear that the phone packs the video and audio punch it needs to enable a sort of miniature approach to immersive gameplay. And a lot of games are going to be a lot of fun when you interact with them through touch and joggling the whole phone. You could see developers latching onto the iPhone as a major gaming platform -- and gamers buying one instead of a Nintendo DS or Sony PSP. What the phone doesn't have, though, is anything like a standard set of game controls. Is anyone going to miss a gamepad or two and a bunch of buttons? How will we play Galaxian on this thing?
8. Will it be a killer productivity device? There's no question we'll see attempts at word processing and spreadsheets, but it's less clear whether it's going to be possible to do really good ones with the on-screen keyboard competing for display real estate. And while the Exchange support is a major step forward for business applications, the iPhone remains a device without a to-do list, something that's essential to my productivity, at least, as my email and calendar. (Side note: PC World uses Lotus Notes, so the Exchange support won't help me a bit in my real-world workdays.)
9. Even with Exchange, are there all that many IT people out there who will love the iPhone? The plaudits for iPhone as a business device this morning came mostly from organizations with strong ties to Apple-Genentech, Disney, Stanford University. I'll bet that there are plenty of businesspeople who'll try to convince their companies to adopt the iPhone, or who will plunk down their own money for one. But I still have trouble envisioning workaday IT guys becoming advocates for a device with such a high entertainment factor. Or to put it another way, if iPhone starts to chip into BlackBerry's dominance in the workplace, I think it'll happen very slowly, and probably through indirect routes rather than scads of enterprises buying thousands of iPhones in bulk
10. Whither 3G? The biggest elephant in the room this morning was the fact that the iPhone remains a 2.5G phone in what's increasingly a 3G world. We know that a high-speed iPhone is scheduled to show up sometime this year, and that the combination of true mobile broadband and third-party apps is going to have an exponential effect on the potential of this platform. I'd love to think that Steve Jobs is planning a June event to roll out the iPhone 2.0 software that will end with a "just one more thing" involving the 3G iPhone.
That's a whole lotta questions. if you have answers to any of them--wild speculation or logical deduction are fine -- or further questions of your own, I'd love to hear them...