Should Apple shackle developers to Safari?

Apple should open OS X and let developers create iPhone applications native to the Mac platform -- instead of driving them down the Safari route.Industry observers said that Apple would do well to change its stance and let developers have access to the iPhone's OS X operating system.

Apple should open OS X and let developers create iPhone applications native to the Mac platform -- instead of driving them down the Safari route.

Industry observers said that Apple would do well to change its stance and let developers have access to the iPhone's OS X operating system. Apple announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference last month that developers would be able to create Web-based applications for the iPhone using the Safari Web browser.

Tony Cripps, service manager for mobile user experience at analyst company Ovum, said that Apple's decision limits the iPhone, as compared to Microsoft and Nokia's approach in opening up their respective Windows Mobile and S60 platforms.

"Nokia's done a good job of trying to support developers of all persuasions -- C++, Java and Web developers -- on the S60 platform, and Apple may find itself needing to offer native development capabilities at some point," Cripps said.

Although the iPhone is a good showcase for Web-enabled mobile "widget" applications, Cripps said, Apple's move to appeal to Web developers rather than native application developers is a double-edged sword.

While there may be "orders of magnitude, more [from] Web developers than native developers, which should result in a buoyant early developer community", the downside to that is the locking-out of third-party developers, Cripps noted.

Raju Vegesna, an evangelist at online business software developer Zoho, noted that some Web applications currently cannot take full advantage of the iPhone.

"For example, I cannot save or download any files from any Web app to iPhone's storage," he said. "There are other limitations, like the unavailability of the iPhone keyboard for [document] editors, which make creating documents impossible through Web apps."

Anne Baker, vice president of marketing at Action Engine, a mobile application platform developer, noted that, if usability is the top priority, then Apple should realise that the limitations of the mobile Web make on-device applications a much better alternative for consumers.

She added: "The wait times and dropped connections found when using browser-based mobile applications make the experience of searching for content simply unacceptable for today's busy consumer. This is especially true for iPhone owners, considering that the device is running over the slower Edge network rather than 3G."

Gauge of success
But whatever the criticisms may be, the success of the iPhone will be measured by how much it impacts Apple's bottom line and not how big a developer community the company has.

"If building a native developer community for the iPhone becomes a strategically important means for Apple to improve its bottom line, then maybe it will change its mind. I just don't think the company believes that there's much value in doing that at the moment," Cripps said.

But at least one mobile operator remains cool about the much-touted iPhone.

Neil Montefiore, chief executive of Singapore mobile operator M1, told reporters on the sidelines of last month's CommunicAsia 2007: "If the iPhone is as successful as Apple wants it to be, it will only account for less than one percent of the total global phone production. It's not going to make a major impact from an operator's point of view."

Asian mobile users can only lay their hands on the iPhone in 2008. And, when that happens, it is unlikely that there will be a tie-up similar to the one between Apple and AT&T in the US.

Montefiore said: "We tend not to do exclusives because we believe customers should have a free choice, and it can't be exclusive because you can't lock phones to networks in Singapore," he said.

Apple declined to comment for this story.