Apple's enterprising iPhone

It only took a moment, but Apple's iPhone revelation showed some corporate stripes

It is hard to fathom Apple's fearsome addiction to secrets. Perhaps the marketing department is run by ex-KGB émigrés. How else to explain that only now, barely a fortnight before the launch of the company's most important new hardware for years, the company feels able to tell us that the iPhone will be able to run other people's software.

That announcement took up a tiny fraction of Steve Job's otherwise lacklustre keynote at his company's annual development conference. For Apple-watchers, more highly skilled than Kremlinologists at teasing every last quantum of meaning from the meanest hint, it was a brand-new bomber flying overhead the May Day parade. Apple has decided that the iPhone will speak Ajax.

Ajax — Asynchronous JavaScript and XML — is the native language of what, for lack of an accurate name, we must call Web 2.0 — not quite Esperanto, but good enough. Ajax combines most of the best bits of software as a service: thin-client computing, web standards and platform independence. Developers are well supported and, as Google has demonstrated, it can deliver exceptionally able applications. And it actually has a security model.

By making this the core of the iPhone's extensibility, Apple has made that device a true Web 2.0 native. And, by running a business address book application on stage at the conference, the company is being as blatant as it ever is about what it sees happening next. Enterprises create Ajax applications, deploy them on their internal servers, and they just run on everything, from employees' home Macs and the grunts' desktop PCs to executive iPhones.

Ajax has its own limitations and foibles that complicate this paradise, but it's the most cogent future yet. By no means all the benefits accrue to Apple: if Ajax really becomes the default enterprise environment, then IT departments will be free to pick and choose fixed and mobile clients on cost, power, performance and reliability — largely ignoring OS issues. We'll be back in the golden age when the only platform was a wide choice of PC compatibles running DOS, with the small exceptions that there'll be no lock-in to any one company, we have development tools worthy of the name, and applications can be globally rolled out faster than it took to copy a floppy.

Like the bombers over the Kremlin, Apple's iPhone announcement isn't really about the hardware. It's about the balance of power, and who's got the most compelling vision of the future. As any secret society knows, propaganda works best when it's true — yet almost as well when you just can't tell. So don't celebrate yet. The wall will be down soon enough.



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