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.