Demo's cool software: There's no iPhone app for that

By keeping the platform closed, Apple deprives iPhone and iPad users of some of the best new mobile apps

Apple's stubborn refusal to open the iPhone/iPad platform is catching up with it. Here at Demo Spring 2010, where more than 60 young technology companies are strutting their stuff, some of the best mobile applications on display won't run on the iPhone. "If you replace a native iPhone application, Apple will block you," says Peter Lindgren, CEO of Visiarc, whose Mobile Documents application streams large attachments to your phone, instead of waiting for them to download.

Mobile Documents is a nifty app if your company uses IMAP- or Exchange-compatible email systems, and it runs well on Nokia Symbian (and soon) Google Android smartphones. But because it replaces the native email application on the iPhone, Apple won't look at it, says Lindgren.

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Then there's an application called ThickButtons that solves a problem users of devices with virtual keyboards complain about all the time: the blizzard of typos caused by hitting the wrong key while trying to type. ThickButtons guesses which key a user wants to type next and makes it wider. But it too is banned from the iPhone because it replaces the native keyboard, says Dimitri Lisitski, the company's co-founder.

Of course, you don't need to attend a technology conference to be frustrated by apps you can't run on the iPhone. The lack of support for Flash has long been a pain point, and it will become even more annoying as millions of consumers buy the iPad with the expectation of using it as a primary device for browsing the Web.

Apple appears to be setting itself up for failure
For now, Apple shows little, if any inclination, to loosen up. But with the smartphone becoming a must-have device for the ordinary consumer, does Apple risk marginalizing itself? "There is an echo of the old Mac vs. Microsoft days," says Matt Marshall, executive producer of the Demo show. In that battle, Apple, of course, had the superior platform, but because Microsoft let developers do pretty much what they wanted to with hardware and software, Windows ended up dominating the market.

While it's likely that the maturation of HTML5 will make developers of rich Web applications somewhat less constrained by Apple's rules, a new markup language won't be a game-changer. "Although it is becoming quite robust, HTML5 won't end the fragmentation of the mobile platform," says Wesley Chan of Google Ventures. "It's the market that will force it." Consumers simply won't buy phones that don't support functions they demand.

Another approach is the customized Web application. Developers can write specialized applications in native code that take advantage of all of the features of a specific smartphone or write a Web application that works in the Web browsers of all of the top devices. "We're seeing more and more of this," says Marshall.

Making a better mobile keyboard
Predictive technologies generally try to discern what choices a user wants to make, but the conceptual breakthrough that makes ThickButtons work is actually the opposite. ThickButtons attempts to guess what the user doesn't want to do.

As a user types, ThickButtons widens keys he or she is likely to strike next, and narrows keys that probably won't be used. When the user backspaces to delete an error, ThickButtons widens the keys next to the deleted one, surmising that the user meant to strike an adjacent key.

As you might guess, the ThickButtons app is built with an embedded dictionary -- but it's a small one of only about 16,000 common words. As the user types, the app compares what's typed with the word list. But rather than trying to guess what word the user is composing, the algorithm eliminates unlikely choices. Letters that probably won't be used narrow on the virtual keyboard; unlikely choices are narrowed.

Using a smaller dictionary solves several problems. It saves memory, of course, and makes prediction much simpler. In fact the company experimented with a much larger dictionary, but it discovered when the algorithm had more choices, it tended to widen too many keys, which lessened usability.

Pretty smart -- but it's too bad iPhone users can't buy it.

This article, "Demo's cool software: There's no iPhone app for that," was originally published at Follow the latest developments from the Demo conference and in mobile computing at