Challenge to Boston Mobile Developers: Show Us Your iPhone Apps

3/7/08Follow @wroush

The iPhone is about to morph into something much more important than a phone or an iPod. And because the next chapter in the device’s history will be all about new software applications created by developers outside Apple, there’s no reason why Boston-area programmers and entrepreneurs shouldn’t be leading characters in the story. We at Xconomy have a modest proposal about ways to ensure that the Northeast plays a big role in the emerging iPhone ecosystem. For that, read to the end of this article.

Of course, the iPhone was never just a phone or a music player. Even calling it a “mobile computer” is a bit derogatory—as if it were just a small, keyboardless laptop. The way I see it (and forgive me for waxing rhapsodic for a moment) Apple has established an entirely new category with the iPhone: the information instrument, a device with just as much affinity to a Stradivarius or some other musical instrument as to a traditional computer or mobile phone. It responds to the human touch and the human imagination in a way that elevates information-handling to something between art and play.

Part of the iPhone’s magic is in the hardware—things like the built-in accelerometer, the location-finding system, the high-quality camera, and the gorgeous display. An even bigger part of it is in the interface—the basic OS X beloved by Mac users as the core operating system, plus the multi-touch-driven application interface, which Apple calls Cocoa Touch. But most of all, the magic is in the individual software applications, which take familiar tasks like browsing the Web, finding an address, listening to voicemail, perusing a playlist, or flipping through photos and—by drawing on the aforementioned hardware and interface innovations—make them feel fresh and playful. (If you’ve never seen an iPhone and you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch Apple’s guided tours, which explain novel features like flicking, pinching, spreading, maps, Visual Voicemail, the Wi-Fi Store, and Cover Flow.)

The applications that launched with the iPhone last June (on June 29th, to be exact, two days after Xconomy’s own launch) were cool enough: text messaging, a datebook, an e-mail manager, the Safari Web browser, a photo album, weather and stock-market widgets, a clock/stopwatch/timer, a calculator, a notepad, a YouTube portal, a Google Maps interface, and, of course, a camera, a video iPod, and a phone (including an address book and Visual Voicemail). But from the start, Apple designed the iPhone to be upgradeable via the iTunes desktop application. And the first major software update came in September, when the company added Wi-Fi access to the iTunes store, so that users could buy and download songs, TV shows, and movies wirelessly. A location-finding feature for the Google Maps interface (powered by local startup Skyhook Wireless‘s Wi-Fi Positioning System, or WPS) and the ability to customize the device’s home screen followed in January.

And much more is on the way—but from here on out, it won’t be just Apple offering improvements for the iPhone. That’s because the company is planning to distribute third-party applications for the device via a new feature called the App Store, starting in late June. (I would have predicted a June 29 launch for the App Store, but that’s a Sunday, so Apple might steal Xconomy’s own first anniversary on Friday, June 27). As Steve Jobs and other Apple executives explained yesterday during a much-anticipated announcement at the company’s Cupertino, CA, headquarters, the company is opening up the software developer’s kit or SDK used by its own programmers—including the crucial application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable applications to talk to the iPhone’s hardware and operating system.

That means any outside developer who wants to download the free SDK can get started now on developing programs that exploit the multi-touch interface, the accelerometer, Skyhook’s WPS, and other subsystems in clever new ways. Once Apple signs off on a new application—and it’s not clear how high a hurdle that part will be—its developer can then sell it or give it away through the App Store. At last, iPhone owners will be able to expand their devices’ capabilities without having to jailbreak them or rely on feeble Web-based apps, which are crippled by their lack of access to the device’s native operating system. (By the way, all of this news about the iPhone here is also true of the iPod touch, which is just an iPhone without the phone.)

What’s more, the Menlo Park, CA, venture firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers announced yesterday that it has set up a $100 million “iFund” specifically to aid developers of iPhone apps. The fund will invest amounts as small as $100,000 to seed small development efforts or as large as $15 million to expand existing mobile applications companies. (The iFund takes the idea behind the $10 million Android Developer Challenge, aimed at creators of applications for Google’s nascent Android mobile phone operating system, and significantly ups the ante—the only difference being that the Google awards have no strings attached.) “Developers are already bursting with ideas for the iPhone and iPod touch, and now they have the chance to turn those ideas into great companies with the help of world-class venture capitalists,” Jobs said of the fund.

We know the Boston area is rife with mobile application developers (just as it’s rife with Internet video developers, Web-based music distribution startups, and Facebook app developers). So, here’s a challenge to all you local mobile developers: We know you love your iPhones. Go get the iPhone SDK and create a cool iPhone app that builds on the device’s potential as an information instrument. Then let us know about it, and we’ll review it here on Xconomy. It’s the least we can do to get local developers and their apps in front of a receptive audience—maybe even including Kleiner Perkins. E-mail us at editors@xconomy.com. And have fun!

Update 3/10/08 2:30 pm: Turns out Mobile Monday Boston is hosting an iPhone SDK Party at the Apple Store at the Cambridgeside Galleria on Monday, March 24. There will be a keynote talk by leading iPhone app developer Jonathan Zdziarski, and the organizers are inviting local mobile developers to demonstrate their iPhone apps —there’s information here about how to sign up to do a demo. I’ll definitely see you there.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.shooklabs.com Michael Sheeley

    You are right. There are many mobile application developers here in Boston. We have just been waiting for an opportunity. Google and Apple are creating this opportunity.

  • http://ampersanddot.com/blog Zach

    @Michael

    GeoSyncUp looks awesome- I see pretty unlimited potential in what your product could do. In light of this post and the iFund, any thoughts of porting the app to the iPhone?

    And being a Windows Mobile junkie myself, I have to ask… any thought of making this work on WinMo devices? I’m guessing the answer is a big “no” due to the lacking hardware interoperability… but it sounds like another great application that Windows Mobile will miss out on in the future.

    Also, I find it interesting that a year ago the only mobile developers out there were for WM (some symbian, maybe?) and now, only months later, there are multiple SDKs which are drawing out many more mobile developers than ever before.

    This shifting focus is exemplified well by the detailed coverage in Boston Pocket PC‘s post on the iPhone SDK. The only local PPC site can’t find enough Windows Mobile to write about, mainly because there just isn’t enough interesting news about PPCs anymore- iPhone and Android are stealing the show.

    To me, this is sad. To the greater mobile community, this is probably a great thing.

  • http://www.shooklabs.com Michael Sheeley

    @Zack
    Thanks for the complement on GeoSyncUp. As for other platforms, we are looking into all possible options.

  • Kris Shwant

    Is there a forum (physical or virtual) where Boston/NE based mobile developers meet? I have a few ideas for mobile apps that I would like to develop and I’d like to start looking for partners.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Kris–
    Check out Mobile Monday Boston (http://www.momoboston.com/). Their next event on March 24, as I mentioned at the end of the story, is about the iPhone SDK, but they have a different speaker & topic every month.