What's the Appeal of the iPhone to Developers?

By chromatic
October 14, 2008

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Raven Zachary and Bill Dudney are co-chairs of O'Reilly's iPhoneLive 2008 conference. O'Reilly recently spoke to them about the appeal of the iPhone to developers, the future of iPhone technologies, and the controversies surrounding Apple's since-lifted NDA on platform details.

Why the iPhone? What's the draw of this for you?

Raven:: I'm very enthusiastic about the platform for a number of reasons. I back in the mid-nineties was a big Newton fan. I've always been a fan of Apple technology due to its usability and aesthetic and just ease of use and was very pleased to see Apple take and apply its acumen in user interface design and in consumer technology here towards mobile computing.

This really is more than a mobile phone to me. It really is a portable computing device. When you look at 3,000 plus applications now available in the App Store in a short number of months and 10,000 plus soon to come, I think you're talking about a whole new computing platform that potentially will become Apple's primary computing platform. The Mac still has a lot of longevity, but in a world with four billion cell phones you're going to see mobile computing be more of a primary interface for consumers than the desktop pc.

You see Apple rev their iPhone/iPod line much more frequently than the MacBook in recent history for example as well.

Raven:: Yes.

Bill:: For me, the big draw was way back in the day, I started my professional computing career on the NeXT. Seeing the Mac come out with OS X and stuff that was all really exciting. I thought, "This is great," and I started playing with it. Then when the iPhone came around and you start to see this huge penetration and this great amount of hype and then the discussion around the 3G, I looked at it and thought, "This is what NeXT could've been back in the day, really cool, great to develop with, really consistent throughout set of frameworks that made building applications not just easy but fun." That was a huge draw for me to get involved with it.

Do you consider the build framework, Objective C, and everything a real draw for the platform?

Bill:: Absolutely. It's huge. I mean there's so much cool stuff around the frameworks. Objective C is a cool language, but people with Ruby and a bunch of other stuff that's going on, people are starting to get the dynamic language stuff. The fact that Objective C is dynamic isn't quite as compelling as it used to be because there's other choices, but the stack of stuff that Apple has built in the frameworks is just so compelling. You get this huge amount of functionality with one or two lines of code with things like Core Animation where you can make this beautiful UI that does all of this really cool animated, beautiful transitions and bouncing around on the screen and stuff. All of that is just a few lines of code. It's just a huge barrier of entry for competitors to work to try to get into.

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Raven: Another thing that I wanted to add to that is this is a huge boon for Mac developers who have lived through the highs and lows of Apple over the years, especially the transition from Carbon, the old SDK to Cocoa which is based on Objective C. For all those NeXT folks who went off and learned Objective C back in the early to mid-nineties, having that basis of existing developers come into the platform provided this initial push that allowed a lot of applications to get up on the App Store in a short amount of time.

People didn't have to start from zero. You had a Mac development base that was able to learn just the nuances of Cocoa touch and apply their existing skill set to this new platform. I know some Mac developers that are making a lot more money today on their iPhone apps than on their Mac apps. Actually, the potential downside to this success may be that we lose some good Mac developers who find that the revenue opportunity on the iPhone is actually greater than on the desktop.

Do you see that Mac developers are moving away from the Mac OS X desktop/laptop to the iPhone or do you see developers say, "Oh, this iPhone looks really, really great. It looks like a great mobile platform. I can get my applications out there. There are nice APIs. I'm going to move from other types of development to the iPhone," even if they weren't necessarily Mac developers to start?

Bill: I'm seeing a little bit of both. What I'm seeing in the Mac community is people who have a successful Mac application are building on that success. If you look at Omni did, they built OmniFocus for the iPhone and made it so that it was more or less a seamless operation, keeping your Omni focus on your desktop/laptop synched and in time with what's going on on your iPhone. I'm also seeing a lot of people who are building Java with J2ME or other platform development systems moving over to the iPhone.

People have seen in the news that Apple's control of the App Store can be controversial. Last year when the iPhone first came out, it looked like the application SDK was here's HTML, here's a little bit of Java Script, but Apple came through and provided a real SDK. If you look at their NDA process for getting things on the App Store, it looks like Apple's maintaining some control over that.

Raven: Well, a couple of points to make. Regarding the conference sessions, we're not going to be doing anything that violates the NDA. That's very important to us. This conference exists in support of a new platform, and the content that we're going to be putting on at this conference will be in support of the growth of that new platform. So assuming that the NDA is not lifted by the conference date in mid-November, the development track, which we're calling the Build Track, is going to focus on Cocoa development which can be applied to both the Mac and the iPhone.

Regarding Apple's centralized deployment of applications, there are varying opinions on the matter. I will say for the vast majority of users, the consumer, the nontechnical consumer, having a centralized store makes the process a lot easier. That's why we've seen over 100 million downloads already from the App Store is that it's on the phone. It's in iTunes. It's a single location. The user doesn't have to go search for various around the internet. Apple is going to apply its own decision on which things make it and which things don't.

I don't have enough insight into their process to be able to comment effectively on the criteria on that, and it has been somewhat controversial amongst the development community, especially those developers that spend weeks if not months developing an app and then come to find that it's been rejected. Again, in those conditions, I don't have enough insight into those individual developers' experience to make much comment on the situation either.

Bill: To echo what Raven said, from the user perspective, I think it's spot on. It's perfect for the user. From the developer perspective, I think it's a blessing and a curse. One, it gives us one place to do distribution. On the other hand, we're sort of hamstrung by whatever Apple chooses to do, and without that stuff being better published, it makes it harder for some developers to figure out which direction they should go. In the long run though, I think it's good for everybody because there will be a lot more applications purchased because there's only one place to get them. Everybody knows what that place is, and it's built into their phone.

You think the benefits of having a single easy to use distribution channel -- for users -- is ultimately the main positive here?

Bill: I think so because it's going to end up where overall there will be a billion applications downloaded in a few years or even more as opposed to if you didn't have that centralized thing, what would it look like? There would be ten million downloads. Overall, the rising sea is going to lift all boats. Even though it's frustrating for some developers and some developers even get locked out because their apps get rejected or whatever, I think overall as a developer community, we're better off having the App Store.

Raven, you mentioned that the conference program may or may not change slightly based on the NDA.

Raven: I don't think the conference program itself will change, but for instance, when we're talking about Core Animation which is one of the talks that Bill's giving at the conference as a co-chair but also as a presenter, that content would go from being Core Animation on the iPhone to being Core Animation in general, as a general topic. The content on Mac development is not under NDA, but there is probably an 80 to 90 percent overlap based upon the differences between Cocoa and Cocoa Touch, and those things are public and can be discussed openly.

The reality is in terms of attendance to this conference, it's going to be a mix of developers and entrepreneurs. We're having two tracks in the afternoon to reflect that. We're doing a build track and a launch track. The launch track's going to include all sorts of things that are definitely not covered under the NDA. Things like startup experiences, case studies, user experience, an investor talk and an entrepreneurial panel. Those things as part of the eco system are not affected by whether or not the NDA is still in place come mid-November.

Isn't it a little early to talk about the ecosystem? Or are there models for building, distributing, selling applications that work now?

Raven: Well, there's definitely a lot of content that can be shared now. It is early. We're talking about months into a new eco system, but we're talking about an operating system that is on probably more than 20 million units right now when you add up iPhones and iPod Touch units that are out there. That's a lot of units, and you already have a number of VCs that are investing in startups in the iPhone space. You have a large number of developers. There definitely is an entrepreneurial market that's emerging for this new platform.

Bill: I absolutely agree. There's a ton of buzz and a lot of the people that are in it today might not be in it in six months or a year or whatever, but the numbers are growing so fast, the numbers of people that are in it, I think it's definitely safe to call it an eco system. It's going to change and evolve a lot over the next year, six months, two years, whatever; but it's definitely there.

Will some of the the Touch technologies come back to the desktop/notebook/subnotebook line at some point?

Raven: I would love to see that. Although, I had a friend of mine laugh when I said that and said, "Try holding your hand against your laptop monitor for more than about 30 seconds and see how your hand feels."

Ask an old Newton fan if that's the case....

Raven: If you're going to see it, you're probably going to see it on the track pad before you see it on the screen. I'd love to be able to move things around with my hand on screen. Then again, we're going to have to all invest in a lot more oil wipes for our monitors if that's the case. I think you'll see it first probably on the track pad. There are rumors of an LCD coming out as a track pad on laptops from Apple. Again, just a rumor but I could imagine myself doing a lot of really great things with moving objects on a screen, actually on the laptop portion itself as opposed to having to extend my hand out.

Bill: I think there's all sorts of really cool rumors, but they're all just that, rumors. Like Raven's saying, in the short term, we're going to have track pads that have more multi-touch functionality than what we see today in the MacBook Air. That will evolve over time.

One of the coolest rumor-type things that I've heard is that you still have the clamshell of the laptop, but instead of the keyboard being there, it's another screen and the entire bottom of your laptop is a touch screen and the keyboard pops up there and you can type. Then when you're done with the keyboard, it goes away. You can put multiple fingers and drag stuff around. It's a rumor, and it sounds really cool, and I could imagine some phenomenal applications you could build with that sort of form factor that you could build, too.

I think Raven said that Core Animation and Core Animation Touch are about 80-85 percent similar. Do you know what the differences are between those?

Raven: We do know the differences, but we can't really talk about them right now. Yet. What we will do in terms of the API is Core Animation, and this is public, they announced that Core Animation was really written for the iPhone and then pushed onto the Mac for Leopard. The differences between what you do in Core Animation on the iPhone versus what you do on the Mac are even less, I mean it's five percent and maybe even less than that. Really, the API is very consistent. If you wanted to build cover flow-type application on the Mac, the code between that and what you would do to write that on the phone would be 95 percent the same or potentially even more.

Suppose I'm not a registered iPhone developer, and I have some familiarity with Objective C, I can look at the API documentation and say I have a pretty good idea how these things work. Can I come to the conference and go to some sessions and have a really strong idea of how to make things work? Sign up for the SDK and be off and running?

Bill: Absolutely. That's absolutely the goal is that we are focused on getting people material that they can take and start building iPhone applications today, delta that little bit of stuff that they have to go look at the documentation.

Raven: The other thing to add to that is when you think about the kinds of individuals who are going to benefit most from attending this conference, I think we don't want to undersell the value here to the new entrant. There's plenty of people who would attend this conference who want to start a career as an iPhone developer, who have very little expertise with Cocoa. If you're an existing iPhone developer who is already releasing apps to the App Store, there will still be content for you at this conference, probably more so in the entrepreneurial track, the launch track than the build track. But I think that attendee profile really is the individual who really wants to start out as an iPhone developer coming to learn about Cocoa topics as well as the content for existing developers.

What are you each most looking forward to?

Bill: Oh, wow. Well, there's two that I think are going to be exceedingly inspirational and fun to go to and fun to listen to is Steve Demeter's talk on building an application in your spare time. He did nights and weekends or whatever for three or four months before the July 11th launch. He had this really cool application called Trism on the App Store on day one, on July 11th, and he's made a quarter of a million dollars, and it's been two months. That's just huge. You know, all of these people who see this opportunity, I think, are really going to be jazzed going and listening to him talk about that.

The other one is Neil Young, his talk. I saw an older version of the talk from iPhone DevCamp. It's phenomenal. He's a great speaker. His energy and his story are really inspirational. So those are two things I'm really looking forward to.

Raven: There's a whole bunch, and we've had a hard time actually having to decide the speakers we want because there's a lot of people who want to speak here, but it's only a one-day conference so there's only a limited number of sessions. I think in the morning I'm really excited about Ben and Roger talking about the App Store trends and patterns. They both work for O'Reilly Media, and they've been doing a lot of quantitative data research on the App Store, what things are successful, markets, really interesting data that a lot of people are going to learn about what we're seeing from the App Store already now. Well, by the time the conference happens, it'll be four months of data, so a third of a year which will be great.

Also, looking really forward to Erica Sadun is a well-known blogger about the iPhone and was an early developer in the market. She writes for TUAW, the unofficial Apple weblog. She's doing a talk on ten things you should know about App Store distribution. Once you finish coding, there's a whole set of issues around getting it to market and distribution that you need to take into consideration, especially with things like internationalization, your copy, the proper kinds of distribution. That'll be really good for developers, kind of what you do post-code.

Raven: One other I wanted to mention, and that's Mike Lee, who was up until recently the lead developer at Tapulous, working on well-known apps like Tap Tap Revenge and Twinkle, a very popular Twitter client for the iPhone. He's doing a talk called "Pimp My App" where he's going to basically take a well-known iPhone application that's on the market today and re-skin it with the usability in mind, what they can do to streamline. We actually have two talks on application usability a really important topic, especially for developers, from two different perspectives: one about users first to designing the application experience and the other by Mike doing a re-skinning kind of onstage, showing some ways to improve usability.

I'd sure like to see that one. What do you think Apple's coming out with next here in terms of the device or the SDK or the platform? What do you secretly hope to see, besides the nice multi-touch on the MacBook?

Raven: I think we're going to see Apple putting out annual, if not more frequently than annual, updates to both the iPhone and the iPod Touch. We just saw the new Touch come out which certainly was thinner and had a speaker and a physical volume control. For a lot of people that was a big win. I was a little bit surprised not to see them add GPS to the new Touch, but I think that's inevitable. Location-based services are going to be a huge win on this platform.

I'd like to see greater processor speeds and greater battery life. With any portable technology, you always hope for both; they run contrary to each other, so Apple has to play the balancing game with CPU versus battery. But imagine this thing with a high-end arm processor and the kinds of things you can do, especially in the gaming world. This thing already rivals the PSP and the DS. Imagine it with four to eight times the processing power. You could imagine it being not only in terms of volume a huge winner on the gaming market, but it could actually be the number one in terms of performance in the entertainment space which is pretty exciting.

Bill: The iPod Touch getting bigger, bigger screen or just in general both of them. Or maybe another device that sort of sits between the MacBook Air and the iPhone that maybe doesn't have the phone capability built into it, but is an ultraportable like a 2X iPod Touch. I think that would be a ton of fun to have. Another thing is GPU speed. I would love to see -- and I don't remember the name of the company, but someone was working on a portable GPU, and stuff that you can do on the Mac that you can't do on the iPhone. You can't go into the details because of the NDA, but I would love to be able to take some of that stuff that you can do on the Mac and push it down onto the iPhone, and that requires a better GPU. Like Raven was saying, it's already a rocking platform for games, but there's a lot of stuff that you could do even further if you had a better GPU.

Now I'm really tempted to ask if it's a stripped down version of OpenGL or if it's vector-based, but I probably can't get an answer.

Bill: Publically available information is OpenGL ES which is the embedded systems OpenGL Version 1.1, and it's got a lot of really cool features in it. That's how a lot of these 3D games or that's the technology these 3D games are taking advantage of.

Raven: Also publically known, the games that are being developed today on the iPhone are either done in OpenGL ES or in Core Animation, those tend to be the two leading methods to get.

Bill: The thing I really want is OpenGL 2, sorry, OpenGL ES 2 which would add a lot of the stuff that I'm referring to, but the GPU on the iPhone doesn't support it is what I understand.

My guess is shaders then, but we can't say that.

Bill: I didn't say yes. But, yeah, I say yes.

Raven: He acknowledges your question.

I have OpenGL books right here. You're not fooling anybody. I guess the really big question about the conference is what are the odds Apple lifts some or all of the NDA? Any speculation there?

Raven: Well, let's see. We're talking at the end of September right now, and that gives Apple what? Forty-five days or so? We're going to structure the conference in such a way where Apple's NDA decision doesn't require us to make significant difficult changes to the program. We think that whether or not the NDA is in place come November 18th for the conference, the content at the conference will be of high quality and of value to the attendees. I would have to say at this point considering that the Apple's Developer Conference was in June and the official launch of the 2.0 OS and the new iPhone that it's probably not going to be lifted, if I had to put a bet on it, simply because there's been enough time now for it to have been lifted. It's, again, just speculation at this point.

Who can predict this company?

Bill: If the NDA is lifted, like Raven was saying, the content of the show is not going to change significantly either way if the NDA's lifted or not. What we will see is that if the NDA is lifted, our presenters will be able to dive into some details in some places where they would not have been able to before. You could imagine ten percent of their content will be tweaked to add iPhone specific details, but that's all that would really change.

Raven: Whether or not the NDA's lifted or not will not affect, for instance, someone like Matt Murphy at Kleiner Perkins talking about the iFund or, for instance, Jeffery Litvack and Louis Gerbaug talking about how much it cost them to build an app from zero to launch or Mike doing his UI redesign or an entrepreneurial panel or Neil Young's talk on the iPhone as a preeminent gaming platform. These things are all around ecosystems and not around code.

Bill: That's what so cool. 70 percent of our content, 60-70 percent of the content is really independent of the NDA anyway. A big chunk of what's going on makes no difference one way or the other about the NDA.

I haven't signed up for the SDK; I'm not participating in the NDA, if I want to write an application and get it out there in the store, I have to sign up for that anyway. Will I get the information one way or the other?

Bill: Right. Absolutely. You'll get tons of really good technical content too from the dev track. It's even iPhone specific; we just can't say that.

Do either of you have any closing words?

Raven: We're at the beginning. In our lives, we've seen the emergence of some exciting technology, certainly the Internet. For those of us who are old enough to remember, the desktop PC revolution, and certainly more recently the Smartphone as a new kind of computing technology. We're only a few months into the launch of the iPhone OS, and when you think about what Apple did with the iPod and how they now have what? A 73 percent market share in the handheld music player market? Pretty significant growth over the last five or six years for Apple and the iPod. I don't think we're going to see Apple having a 73 percent market share of Smartphones, but I think this going to be a major long-term mobile computing platform. We're just at the beginning.

In the same way as we looked back on the internet in '95 or '96, there were so many things we could not see down the road that were very exciting that came out of that revolutionary technology movement. This eco system is going to be huge. It's going to be diverse, and it's going to be very lucrative for those who choose to join in.

Bill: There's so much cool stuff. As a developer, looking at the opportunity to build something fun or useful or effective for people is something that I got away from when I got into the Java space and started writing IT applications.

IT applications are really important. It's good that we have people building IT applications. But man, so often it seems like you get to the end of the development cycle and you've built something that no one really wants but people just sort of deal with because they have to because it's part of getting the business done. Building stuff on the iPhone or even on the Mac, you're building something for real people that does something to make their lives better, and it's fun to build, and it's really effective for those people. I love that, because at the end of the day what you've delivered is something that helps someone. That's what I love about doing iPhone development. That's what I love about doing Mac development is it's really about helping people do cool stuff faster, better, cheaper or just have fun like with building the casual games. I'm just so excited about the potential for this platform, being able to go forward and do this full-time is the cool thing to do for quite some time, so I'm stoked.

Transcript provided by Wendy Smith

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