iPhone OS shackles to stay, analysts say

Industry observers doubt Apple will open up access to the iPhone's operating system--at least, not in the short term--and give programmers much flexibility.

Don't bet on Apple loosening the shackles off its much-lauded iPhone operating system (OS)--even if it means this could broaden the device's appeal to developers and mobile device users.

"Apple has a history of seeking to control its development environment, thus limiting access to the iPhone OS would enable it to maintain this approach," Gavin Byrne, research analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

Despite being a few months away from launch, the iPhone has already impressed industry observers who have commended Apple's approach in enriching the handset user experience. Instead of a physical user interface, the iPhone is fronted by a touch screen interface--dubbed Multi-touch--and runs on a stripped-down variant of the Mac OS X operating platform.

In a recent informal poll conducted by ZDNet Asia sister site CNET News.com on iPhone features, 23 percent of readers found the Multi-touch interface feature stood out the most, while the iPhone's full-fledged OS X platform garnered 14 percent of votes.

While analysts have described the iPhone as a major achievement in industrial design, doubts still linger over how much flexibility Apple will give to programmers.

Tony Cripps, Ovum's service manager for Mobile User Experience, noted in his research study that compared to competing platforms--such as Microsoft's Windows Mobile--the iPhone's native programming environment "appears to be closed to post-loaded applications and possibly even to third-party pre-loaded applications".

Cripps added that this closed-door policy makes the iPhone a poor service platform for mobile network operators.

"This is way out of step with growing mobile operator demands for consistent, common and widely deployed handset platforms on which to launch new services," said Cripps, adding that the iPhone, while clearly a special device from the consumer point of view, is little more than another handset to operators.

Although Apple has been hiring more staff to work on the product, the company's decision to keep the iPhone's platform close to external parties has won it little fans among application developers and mobile network operators. Informa's Byrne, however, noted that the Cupertino-based company seemed prepared to make exceptions when it suited them.

"It would seem likely that Apple [would have to work] with a number of key technology companies such as Google," argued Byrne. He added that for certain applications--such as the iPhone's Google Map function, for example--Apple would have had to collaborate closely with the search giant to optimize the application for the iPhone's platform.

"The indexing and the hierarchical listing capability as shown in the iPhone's user interface combined with its Multi-touch feature, enable new ways to interact with applications," Byrne explained. "Thus, for applications such as Google [Maps], this may require some close collaboration."

When asked why Apple should consider granting access of the iPhone's OS architecture to other developers, Byrne said it would "encourage them to develop advanced applications that can be downloaded". Developers would also "benefit more from the device's computing power", he added.

Byrne explained that making it possible for mobile users to personalize their handsets could be crucial in broadening the appeal of the iPhone in a worldwide market which, according to Informa Telecoms & Media, has raked up sales of 970 million mobile handsets in 2006. However, Byrne agreed that it is unlikely that Apple will open up access to the iPhone's OS--at least in the short term.

Cripps, however, noted that such a move is unlikely to make a difference in helping Apple expand the iPhone's developer base.

"Even if [the iPhone] is opened up to third parties, it is difficult to see how the installed base of iPhones can reach the level where it becomes a truly attractive service platform for operator and developer investment," Cripps countered.

The Ovum analyst added that even if a Software Development Kit (SDK) was to be released, Mac OS X developers would have a hard time porting desktop variants of their software to the iPhone due to basic differences in elements such as the user interface and form factor.

Apple's apparent ditching of conventional application paradigms for mobile phones seems ill-advised if the company really wanted the iPhone to be perceived as a smartphone and to take on mobile juggernauts such as Nokia, Microsoft and Motorola. At the moment, Cripps said, he found little evidence to suggest Apple going down this route.

He said: "Apple effectively exists in a market of one, with few other vendors able or willing to pursue a similar strategy. It will not judge the success of the iPhone according to the share of the handset market it acquires, but rather in how much profit it adds to the company’s bottom line."

When asked whether Apple might license the iPhone's platform to generate extra revenue for its bottom line, Informa's Byrne said this seemed unlikely.

Some industry observers have suggested that in order for Apple to achieve significant market penetration in the next year, the company should consider licensing the iPhone's OS to external handset makers.

Cripps, however, doubts that manufacturers will buy into this idea, arguing that the lack of flexibility and extensibility in the iPhone's software platform would potentially limit its use across a broader spectrum of applications and devices.

"[Apple] is not constrained by the needs of mass-market device software providers such as Microsoft, Symbian, Nokia and Motorola to deliver jack-of-all-trades platforms," offered the Ovum analyst.

Cripps added that the differences between the iPhone and its new-found competition among traditional handset OEMs lie in Apple's design philosophy rather than in any major technological advantage. Instead of buying Apple's technology, Cripps predicted, manufacturers will try to emulate the iPhone's software interface for one-off products using custom platforms based on Linux or Windows CE.

"It is far from impossible," Cripps said. He noted that some devices in the market have similarities with the iPhone's design--such as the Linux-based OpenMoko, which will soon debut on the FIC Neo1973 handset.

"The stillborn MyDevice demonstrated the concept of motion sensors on handsets in 2003 [and] the existing Windows CE-based Neonode handset have already pointed the way to finger-friendly interfaces."