Ian might be right, but not because of Steve’s announcement today about opening up the iPhone.
Indeed, my reaction so far has been one of quasi-resignation and disappointment.
A voice inside me whimpers, “Don’t give up on the web, Steve! Not yet!”
You have to understand that when I got involved in helping to plan iPhoneDevCamp, we didn’t call it iPhoneWebDevCamp for a reason. As far as we knew, and as far as we could see into the immediate future, the web was the platform of the iPhone (Steve Jobs even famously called
Safari the iPhone’s SDK).
The hope that we were turning the corner on desktop-based applications was palpable. By keeping the platform officially closed, Apple brought about a collective channeling of energy towards the development of efficient and elegant web interfaces for Safari, epitomized by Joe Hewitt’s iPhone Facebook App (started as a project around iPhoneDevCamp and now continued on as iUI by Christopher Allen, founder of the iPhoneWebDev group).
And we were just getting started.
…So the questions on my mind today are: was this the plan all along? Or, was Steve forced into action by outside factors?
If this were the case all along, I’d be getting pretty fed up with these kind of costly and duplicitous shenanigans. For godsake, Steve could at least afford to stop being so contradictory! First he lowers the price of the iPhone months after releasing it, then drops the price of DRM-free tracks (after charging people to “upgrade their music”), and now he’s promising a software SDK in February, pledging that an “open” platform “is a step in the right direction” (after bricking people’s phones and launching an iPhone WebApps directory, seemingly in faux support of iPhone Web App developers).
Now, if this weren’t in the plan all along, then Apple looks like a victim of the promise — and hype — of the web as platform. (I’ll entertain this notion, while keeping in mind that Apple rarely changes direction due to outside influence, especially on product strategy.)
Say that everything Steve said during his keynote were true and he (and folks at Apple) really did believe that the web was the platform of the future — most importantly, the platform of Apple’s future — this kind of reversal would have to be pretty disappointing inside Apple as well. Especially considering their cushy arrangement with Google and the unlikelihood that Mac hardware will ever outsell PCs (so long as Apple has the exclusive right to produce Mac hardware), it makes sense that Apple sees its future in a virtualized, connected world, where its apps, its content and its business is made online and in selling thin clients, rather than in the kind of business where Microsoft made its billions, selling dumb boxes and expiring licenses to the software that ran on them.
If you actually read Apple’s guide for iPhone content and application development, you’d have to believe that they get the web when they call for:
- Understanding User-iPhone Interaction
- Using Standards and Tried-and-True Design Practices
- Integrating with Phone, Mail, and Maps
- Optimizing for Page Readability
- Ensuring a Great Audio and Video Experience (while Flash is not supported)
These aren’t the marks of a company that is trying to embrace and extend the web into its own proprietary nutshell. Heck, they even support microformats in their product reviews. It seems so badly that they want the web — the open web — to succeed given all the rhetoric so far. Why backslide now?
Well, to get back to the title of this post, I can’t but help feel like the web failed the iPhone.
For one thing, native apps are a known quantity for developers. There are plenty of tools for developing native applications and interfaces that don’t require you to learn some arcane layout language that doesn’t even have the concept of “columns”. You don’t need to worry about setting up servers and hosting and availability and all the headaches of running web apps. And without offering “services in the cloud” to make web application hosting and serving a piece of cake, Apple kind of shot itself in the foot with its developers who again, aren’t so keen on the ways of the web.
Flipped around, as a proponent of the web, even I can admit how unexciting standard interfaces on the web are. And how much work and knowledge it requires to compete with the likes of Adobe’s AIR and Microsoft’s SilverLight. I mean, us non-proprietary web-types rejoice when Safari gets support for CSS-based rounded corners and the ability to use non-standard typefaces. SRSLY? The latter feature was specified in 1998! What took so long?!
No wonder native app developers aren’t crazy about web development for the iPhone. Why should they be? At least considering where we’re at today, there’s a lot to despise about modern web design and to despair about how little things have improved in the last 10 years.
And yet, there’s a lot to love too, but not the kind of stuff that makes iPhone developers want to abandon what’s familiar, comfortable, safe, accessible and hell, sexy.
It’s true, for example, that with the web you get massive distribution. It means you don’t need a framework like Sparkle to keep your apps up-to-date. You can localize your app in as many languages as you like, and based on your web stats, can get a sense for which languages you should prioritize. With protocols like OpenID and OAuth, you get access to all kind of data that won’t be available solely on a user’s system (especially when it comes to the iPhone which dispenses with “Save” functionality) as well a way to uniquely identify your customers across applications. And you get the heightened probability that someone might come along and look to integrate with or add value to your service via some kind of API, without requiring any additional download to the user’s system. And the benefits go on. But you get the point.
Even still, these benefits weren’t enough to sway iPhone developers, nor, apparently, Steve Jobs. And to the degree to which the web is lacking in features and functionality that would have allowed to Steve to hold off a little longer, there is opportunity to improve and expand upon what I call the collection of “web primitives” that compose the complete palette of interaction options for developers who call the web their native platform. The simple form controls, the lightboxes, the static embedded video and audio, the moo tools and scriptaculouses… they still don’t stack up against native (read: proprietary) interface controls. And we can do better.
It’s a shame really. We could have done so much together. The web and the iPhone, that is. We could have made such sweet music. Especially when folks realize that Steve was right and developing for Safari is the future of application development, they’ll have wished that they had invested in and lobbied for richer and better tools and interfaces for what will inevitably become the future of rich internet application development and, no surprise, the future of the iPhone and all its kin.