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Non-Apple-approved iPhone applications underway

Posted: 19 Sep 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Apple iPhone? iPhone OS? third-party applications?

Despite discouragement from Apple, some Mac developers are working on a way to make it possible to easily install and run non-Apple-approved iPhone applications that communicate directly with the smart phone's OS.

Officially, Apple wants third-party applications to run in the iPhone's Safari Web browser. Such applications would be built using Ajax and other Web 2.0 technologies, and would allow Apple to maintain tight control over the iPhone's OS.

Open floodgates
But having access to the innards of the OS provides the technology needed to build applications with far more capabilities than those running in a Web browser, so Mac developersmany from the open source communityare trying to make an end-run around Apple. Glen Aspeslagh, co-founder of Ecamm Network, which builds software for the Mac, estimates there are more than 100 iPhone applications, such as utilities and games, available today that run directly on the OS. "The floodgates are open," he told InformationWeek on Friday.

Among the first projects to pry open the gates since the iPhone was released June 29 was the Toolchain Project, whose members have built what essentially is a software development kit for the iPhone. The kit includes a compiler and the technology needed to run code on the iPhone OS. Aspeslagh has tried it out. "We're pretty impressed," he said. "If you're a Mac OS programmer, then programming on the iPhone is going to look very familiar."

But so-called "native" applications are not for mainstream consumers. "There's no easy way to get applications on the iPhone," Aspeslagh said. "You have to make changes to your iPhone, and that really freaks people out. It's a procedure that could turn your iPhone into a paperweight, if it's not done correctly."

No Apple backing
Then there's the no-support posture of Apple. The company did not respond to requests for an interview, but Greg Joswiak, VP of iPod marketing, told the blog Gearlog that the company would neither forbid nor support native code on the iPhone or the new iPod Touch, which uses the same operating platform. What this means is that Apple won't purposely break third-party applications in software upgrades for the devices, but if that happens then tough luck.

Since there's little developers can do to change Apple's mind, they've chosen to work on the problem they can solve, which is making it easy to install, remove, and run iPhone applications. One of the most popular projects is PXL, which is pronounced "pixel." The technology uses the same concept as a "package manager" utility used on Linux systems, which is familiar to open-source developers.

Among the software developers heavily involved in the PXL project is Nullriver, a Canadian company that builds Mac OS X software. It's creations include Connect360, which makes it possible for Microsoft's Xbox 360 videogame console to play music and display photos stored in Apple iTunes and iPhotos, respectively.

Last month Ecamm, which is run by Aspeslagh and his brother Ken, demonstrated at the C4 independent developers conference in Chicago a prototype of a video conferencing application for the iPhone. While Aspeslagh believes the application has potential, he won't be able to go much further without Apple's blessing. "We're an example of a company that would go full bore and start turning out iPhone applications, if Apple was to release an SDK," he said. "But somehow, that seems unlikely."

- Antone Gonsalves

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