iPhone developers: Locked into Apple's walled garden

In Steve Jobs' world, smartphone developers play by his rules -- or risk getting shut out of the iPhone platform

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Some critics have argued, credibly, that recent moves by Apple seem designed to undermine Flash as an application platform. Apple and Adobe are longtime partners, but relations between the companies appear to have cooled since Adobe purchased Macromedia in 2005. Apple's decision not to support Flash on the iPad, with its generous screen, is a conspicuous sign that Adobe's platform has fallen out of favor with Apple's CEO.

It wouldn't be the first time Jobs took it upon himself to kill a platform. In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, he characterized Java as a burden for developers, claiming, "Java's not worth building in. Nobody uses Java anymore." While this statement sounds ludicrous on its face, it's certainly true in Apple's camp. Although Apple once promised to make Java a first-class citizen on Mac OS X -- and Jobs once went so far as to call Mac OS X "the best platform for Java development" -- Apple deprecated the Java API for Cocoa in 2005, leaving Objective-C as the only viable choice. It seems Apple's allergy to anything not invented in Cupertino won't let it embrace anyone else's platform for long.

Taking the blinders off
Not every developer is disappointed with the iPhone SDK's latest draconian twist. John Gruber of Daring Fireball argues that the new license terms will mean no change for most developers, and "iPhone users will be well-served by this rule." But this view applies mainly to those developers who are already comfortable doing things strictly the Apple way. "If you're an iPhone developer and you are not following Apple's advice," Gruber warns, "you're going to get screwed eventually."

Fortunately, getting screwed and being led like cattle aren't the only options for smartphone developers, just as the iPhone OS isn't the only smartphone platform on the market. A growing number of developers are waking up to the idea that Apple may not have their best interests at heart. According to a recent study by AdMob, a mobile advertising firm, 70 percent of iPhone developers plan to release apps for Google's rival Android platform in the next six months.

Among the die-hard Android supporters is Tim Bray, co-creator of XML, who recently took a job at Google as a developer advocate for the Android platform. Of Apple's iPhone ecosystem, Bray says, "I hate it. I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom's not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient."

Sadly, however, developers alone don't make a market. Consider Palm -- its WebOS platform is arguably the most attractive environment for smartphone developers, and Palm made a point of encouraging an active developer community from the start. And yet, while the iPhone App Store boasts more than 100,000 apps, Palm can claim but a few thousand, and sales of Palm handsets have been 25 percent lower than analysts forecast. This week, the other shoe dropped: Rumor has it that Palm, defeated, is now up for sale.

It seems smartphone customers don't care whether developers for their devices are free. Instead, they care about what their phones can do, and in that race Apple is far ahead. Until Android or some other platform can slow the iPhone's momentum, mobile developers are faced with an unpleasant reality: It's Steve Jobs' world. You just code in it.

This article, "iPhone developers: Locked into Apple's walled garden," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in software development and mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

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