An iPhone API I’d like to see

Just talking about the iPhone, there is an API that I’d like to see and I’m sure many applications would benefit from: A download manager.  I imagine that an app could register to pull the content of a specific URL or the answer from a Web Service at a specified time or at specified intervals, and then the answers or most recent answer is ready for consumption when the app is started by the user.

Ideally, this would integrate with iTunes so that when syncing the phone, all the data-hungry apps get their mouths fed and are provided with the last version of the data they’re interested in.  What I have in mind are news-plucking applications like All Things Digital or Bloomberg, or the TV schedule apps — or many of the other apps that you start, then wait to have their content pulled, and only then continue to use.  The basic thing they do is simple: They all get their data in first.  And I presume many, many of them in one or the other kind of XML application.

Man, would that improve my user experience of the iPhone.

Some thoughts on Apple’s answer to the FCC

Reading Apple’s public answer to the FCC’s questions, I cannot but notice a few very specifically worded parts of the answer that I’d like to highlight.

The App Store provides a frictionless distribution network that levels the playing field for individual and large developers of mobile applications. We provide every developer with the same software that we use to create our own iPhone applications. The App Store offers an innovative business model that allows developers to set their own price and keep more (far more in most cases) of the revenue than traditional business models. In little more than a year, we have raised the bar for consumers’ rich mobile experience beyond what we or anyone else ever imagined in both scale and quality. Apple’s innovation has also fostered competition as other companies (e.g., Nokia, Microsoft, RIM, Palm and Verizon) seek to develop their own mobile platforms and launch their own application stores.

(Emphasis mine.) It may be that Apple provides us with the software they use themselves, but not with the APIs. In fact, quite a few interesting bits of the iPhone are not available to the iPhone developer who decides to pursue the Apple-authorized way only. Reports of things not being available are online aplenty, but let’s just mention tasks or applications running in the background, modifying the camera dialog or being able to add functionality to the settings dialogs used by Apple’s Settings app that developers are expected to hook into.

Apple works with network providers around the world so that iPhone users have access to a cellular network. In the United States, we struck a groundbreaking deal with AT&T in 2006 that gives Apple the freedom to decide which software to make available for the iPhone. This was an industry first.

Yes, indeed. This was an industry first – that this freedom lie at the discretion of Apple, and not just be a transaction solely between the user of the device and the software developers.  If a software company decided to develop for, say, the Palm Treo, they could just do that and offer their software for users of that plattform.  If a company decided that developing for Symbian was something they’d like to do, they could just do that.  Same for Blackberry and Windows Mobile.

Don’t get me wrong: I do understand that this is a double-edged sword.  No other plattform has made it so easy for users to get software onto their devices; I do believe that the App Store is one of the cornerstones of making development for mobile platforms a viable business model.  That’s one reason why the shortcomings of the App Store process are so irritating – because things could be even more fun for developers, now that the idea of developing for the iPhone fulltime isn’t so far-fetched anymore.

And I’m not even mentioning that as a customer of T-Mobile and as a german iPhone developer, I’m not sure why I even should care about the contract Apple has with AT&T. But this is not part of an investigation of the FCC.

Contrary to published reports, Apple has not rejected the Google Voice application, and continues to study it. The application has not been approved because, as submitted for review, it appears to alter the iPhone’s distinctive user experience by replacing the iPhone’s core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls, text messaging and voicemail. Apple spent a lot of time and effort developing this distinct and innovative way to seamlessly deliver core functionality of the iPhone. For example, on an iPhone, the “Phone” icon that is always shown at the bottom of the Home Screen launches Apple’s mobile telephone application, providing access to Favorites, Recents, Contacts, a Keypad, and Visual Voicemail. The Google Voice application replaces Apple’s Visual Voicemail by routing calls through a separate Google Voice telephone number that stores any voicemail, preventing voicemail from being stored on the iPhone, i.e., disabling Apple’s Visual Voicemail. Similarly, SMS text messages are managed through the Google hub—replacing the iPhone’s text messaging feature. In addition, the iPhone user’s entire Contacts database is transferred to Google’s servers, and we have yet to obtain any assurances from Google that this data will only be used in appropriate ways. These factors present several new issues and questions to us that we are still pondering at this time.

(Emphasis again mine.) Well, I find that hard to believe.  From my understanding of the technologies involved, there is no way that Google Voice could be replacing any functionality on the iPhone.  They may be offering an application that offers similar or equal functionality — but it’s hardly a novel idea that companies would come in and offer software that does the same thing as an already existing piece of code, only potentially better — or rather, more in line with what the users expectations and needs are. If that’s what the users want, Apple would be well-advised to listen.  And if the users find the experience too confusing for their own good or plainly do not like the application, no interest in it will happen anyway.  I think that’s what’s called a market economy.

But it brings us around to the point from above: Even though the tools Apple offers are the same they use, there’s a strong distinction of what the independent developer is allowed (or able) to do, and what they themselves do.  There is, for instance, no way of answering a phone call programatically on the iPhone, and I’ve got at least two ideas for applications that would be doing that.  Or filter out types of SMS that get routed to an application, which would then act on them.  Heck: I’d just like to be able to get an application to be started at a specific time of day, reliably.

The following applications also fall into this category.

Name: GVDialer / GVDialer Lite
Developer: MobileMax
Name: VoiceCentral
Developer: Riverturn, Inc.
4819 Emperor Blvd., Suite 400
Durham, NC 27703
Name: GV Mobile / GV Mobile Free
Developer: Sean Kovacs
We are continuing to study the Google Voice application and its potential impact on the iPhone user experience. Google is of course free to provide Google Voice on the iPhone as a web application through Apple’s Safari browser, just as they do for desktop PCs, or to provide its “Google-branded” user experience on other phones, including Android-based phones, and let consumers make their choices.

I’m taking one app out of that list: GV Mobile.  It’s developer, Sean Kovacs reports differently. It also has not rejected GV Mobile; it had approved it and suddenly pulled it from the App Store, with some warning in advance to the developer. This, to me, is not „continuing to study it.“  Of course, it’s also not rejecting it — because it had been approved.

Apple does not know if there is a VoIP element in the way the Google Voice application routes calls and messages, and whether VoIP technology is used over the 3G network by the application. Apple has approved numerous standard VoIP applications (such as Skype, Nimbuzz and iCall) for use over WiFi, but not over AT&T’s 3G network.

I’m not sure what to even make of this paragraph.  Are they trying to tell us they do not know how Google Voice works? Or that their examination of the app has not even reached a state where they would be likely to … try out how it works? From my understanding of what I read online, it should not be hard to figure out that the app does not use VoIP over 3G — and there’s always the possibility of actually asking the developers how their app functions. But this paragraph alone does not instill trust into the approval process with me.

But let’s see what comes of all this.  Maybe Apple will improve the quality of the review process, as they say they’re planning to.

Apple Tablet

So let’s assume for a moment that Apple is really going to to a Tablet. Why should they me modelling it on the iPhone, and not the Mac? If it’s going to be with a 10″ or 12″ display and have at least a halfway decent processor, I think the natural choice would be to go with the Mac as the starting point; the ModBook shows the possibility of such a venture. There’s loads of software available for the Mac as a platform as opposed to — probably none that would be running without modification in the App Store today. So if they want the plattform to take off quickly, I guess it would be in their interest to have the ready-to-run software available right away.

If Apple were indeed to offer an App Store for the tablet, it more certainly the not needs to be just one distribution channel for the plattform, not the only feasible way for developers to get software onto the devices.

But maybe Apple will again surprise us with an entirely new take on the topic. They’ve done that before.