Jail-Breaking iPhones and Other Tales from the Apple Store

3/25/08Follow @wroush

For Boston-area mobile software developers, the Apple Store at the Cambridgeside Galleria was the place to be last night. Apple loaned the space to Mobile Monday Boston for its monthly meeting, which focused this time on software applications for the iPhone—whether authorized by Apple or “open,” to use the euphemism for the growing universe of programs written for jail-broken iPhones.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a huge, wall-to-wall crowd inside the Apple Store—except for the day the iPhone itself came out last summer. But the really amazing thing about the event was that Apple even let the keynote speaker, Jonathan Zdziarski, in the front door. Zdziarski was one of the first software engineers to figure out how to hack the iPhone, and he’s the author of a forthcoming O’Reilly Media book called iPhone Open Application Development, which gives readers explicit instructions on jail-breaking iPhones (that is, bypassing Apple’s restrictions on loading third-party software). So for Apple to give Zdziarski the podium at an Apple retail location is a little like Steve Ballmer inviting Linus Torvalds to speak at a Windows product launch.

Chances are that no one back in Cupertino knew what MoMoBoston was planning. Or maybe it was just plain canniness in Apple’s part—since the proliferation of third-party iPhone applications, which began well before Apple released a software development kit (SDK) this month and announced plans for a new App Store for approved programs, can only increase developer interest in building cool stuff for the iPhone platform, as well as consumer interest in buying the devices. Of course, Apple can’t come out and say that, but it can turn a blind eye when necessary.

In any case, Zdziarski talked just as much about the SDK and the officially sanctioned pathway for iPhone application development as he did about his own work. And he lavishly praised the iPhone as a device that—finally—puts almost everything a mobile application developer could ask for into a single package. (Think full Mac OS X operating system, big gorgeous screen, multi-touch interface, accelerometer, high-resolution camera, support for animation and 3-D graphics formats, and broadband Wi-Fi connectivity.)

Boston’s uLocate, the location-based-services company I’ve written about several times recently, sent an engineer to the gathering to demonstrate the iPhone version of its Buddy Beacon location sharing tool. Like all of the officially sanctioned third-party iPhone applications so far, Buddy Beacon doesn’t run natively on the iPhone but rather is accessible through the iPhone’s Safari browser. I’m pleased to report that the application is working much better now than it was when I first reviewed it back in mid-February. And the company is using the SDK to build a native version, which will be even better, since it will be able to extract the user’s current location from the iPhone’s built in cellular and Wi-Fi scanners, instead of making users update their location manually.

You won’t find anyone showing off such native iPhone apps on an actual iPhone until after the App Store opens this summer: the iPhone developer program agreement that Apple imposes on third-party programmers says they can’t “disclose, show, rent, lease, lend, sell or otherwise transfer” an iPhone running Apple’s third-party software provisioning modules. This puts a bit of a crimp in my earlier challenge to local mobile application developers to “show us your iPhone apps” for our coming mobile-apps showcase. But there are still lots of cool Web-based iPhone apps being built that people can talk about, so that’s where we’ll probably start (more on that to come).

Snapmylife and Files2Phones logosAnd several intriguing Web-based iPhone apps from local developers were on display last night. One of the coolest that I saw was Snapmylife, an online photo sharing community for camera-phone users built by Needham, MA-based Mobicious. It’s basically Flickr for phones, and it’s drop-dead simple (as it needs to be, for a mobile platform); Mobicious CEO George Grey told me the community, which just launched in December, had 3 million page views and 300,000 unique visitors in February.

Another standout was Files2Phones, from Framingham, MA-based 1stWorks, which allows you to use your phone to remotely access programs and files on your desktop or laptop computer. I’d heard of Files2Phones before, but the idea never made sense to me until last night, when I saw the system running on an iPhone. The device has a sufficiently large screen that activities like exploring a CAD drawing or editing an Excel spreadsheet are actually practical.

After the talks and demos, the MoMoBoston crowd adjourned to Dante, a posh bar across the street at the Royal Sonesta, where they all looked thoroughly out of place. But overall, the event was a strong indication of the Boston software community’s interest in the iPhone as a platform, and of its readiness to write applications as quickly as Apple will let them—or, if they choose Zdziarski’s “open” route, as fast as they can.

Addendum 3/25/08 3:30 pm. Antonio Rodriguez at HP has a nice blog post talking about the interesting mix of enterprise-bred and Web-bred people who tend to show up at the MoMoBoston events.

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

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