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.