Why We Still Need the iPhone App Black Market

Why We Still Need the iPhone App Black Market

A year ago, we said that no iPhone SDK meant no killer apps. It came, and the apps are here in staggering numbers. But many of the amazing apps and concepts we grew to love as unofficial apps aren’t here, and only about 100 of the 500+ apps at launch in the official store are really useful or desirable—the rest are dupes or just bad. There are no less than five apps to turn my iPhone into a flashlight, yet I can’t turn it into a 3G-powered Wi-Fi hotspot. Why? Because the SDK has more restrictions than Guantanamo–devs can’t integrate with the OS and have to steer way, way clear of copyright and trademark issues—so the most innovative, game-changing apps might not ever make it to your squeaky clean iPhone. That’s why we need more than Apple’s official app store–we still need jailbreaking, Installer.app (now Cydia) and the best unauthorised third-party apps to make the iPhone an ultra-powerful open platform we really want. Here are the roadblocks:

Developers can’t touch or enhance iTunes or iPod functionality in any way, shape or form–they can’t even access your music directory, meaning you better like the way the iPod button works just the way it is. Don’t expect any apps to use your wonderfully curated music library either.
Casualties: Instinctiv Shuffle, a smart shuffle application that learns your skipping behaviour to figure what you actually wanna hear next. Tap Tap Revolution became the watered-down Tap Tap Revenge.

No processes can run in the background–apps have to completely quit when exited, completely contained in their little sandbox.
Casualties: IM is a popular example, but Apple’s upcoming push notifications will probably make them a moot rallying point. It also means that third-party copy-and-paste solutions won’t work, since you can’t move the text to another application. Also impossible is a fantasy app of ours, TrippWire, that would record phone conversations (all legal considerations aside).

Devs can’t integrate apps or functions into the OS. Third-party apps will always be second-class citizens, and can’t significantly alter iPhone functions, including accessing the calendar or SMS messaging or adding any content to the otherwise useless lock screen that appears when you wake up the phone.
Casualites: Intelliborn’s Mario Ciabarra lamented to us that the SDK actually doesn’t give you all the same APIs and tools as Apple, and is missing a whole bunch of critical ones that’d let you add content to the lock screen, access calendar events or mail, or change the way the iPhone responds to events, meaning there’s no way for him to build his app Intelliscreen (above) using the SDK. Instinctiv CEO Justin Smithline also told us that you simply “can’t create a well-integrated app,” like Instinctiv Shuffle. This set of restrictions “flies in the face” of Apple’s own philosophy of the creating beautiful software with the best possible user experience, says Smithline.

Pirated games, movies or whatever are a no-no in the App Store, obviously.
Casualties: NES.app, or any emulator, really, dooming us to bloated, over-priced renditions of Tetris by videogame mega-publishers. Also off limits, a dedicated video streaming app for something like the old Stage6 or QuickSilverScreen, which traffics in content that’s, um, not legally spotless, to say the least.

A bit different than the piracy concern, apps using copyrights, trademarks or intellectual property of a major company are sticky, and the App Store will steer clear of them if they’re not developed by the company itself.
Casualties: Apps like TiVoRemote would have to be developed by TiVo or else they’d have dicey prospects, at best. Basically anything involving a company’s intellectual property or trademarks from anyone but the company themselves. An app that’ll stream movies from your Netflix “Watch Instantly” account by anybody but Netflix would be another obvious foul.

Devs don’t have deep access to the hardware. Jonathan Zdziarski, creator of NES.app and author of a few iPhone books, told us “much of the lower-level functionality has been hidden” in the SDK so “if your application is going to meet the necessarily political requirements, these more powerful features are off-limits.”
Casualties: Stuff like Camera Pro, which gives you a ridiculous amount of control over the camera, would have a hard time complying with SDK rules. More than that, Zdziarski says, Apple has “privatised” the CoreSurface framework, which is “making it very difficult for developers to write their own movie players, 2D games, and similar kinds of renderings,” especially with performance approaching passable.

Apple’s app review process is a complete mystery to developers and takes forever, which can effect app quality and horribly delays app updates.
Casualties: Aurora Feint’s developers revealed to us, “How the whole review process [for applications]goes is unknown to us,” and that Apple doesn’t even tell developers how many times their app is downloaded–they’ve gotta figure it out by the size of the cheque or have the app report back. NetNewsWire’s Brent Simmons related the cloak-and-dagger headaches to Wired, telling them that developers are “not supposed to discuss actually programming on the iPhone with anybody–even though that would raise the quality of the apps.” Between July 11 and July 17, Simmons pumped out five updates to its application and none of them had showed up by the 17th.

Apple limits app testing to five devices, so there is basically no beta testing.
Casualties: Us. We’re the beta testers. Aurora Feint’s developers told us that for app testing, “Apple requires special signing to be done that binds each app to a specific device for debugging purposes,” and it’s limited to five, so they “definitely had some people camping out in our offices” to test. Twitterific creator Craig Hockenberry notes that the iPhone app’s crash report come to a dev in a form barely more comprehensible than Swahili, on top of lacking info about what’s going on in the phone outside their app. And then, if you do have a fix, there’s no way to test it, other than to release it out into the wild through the App Store, “the developer equivalent of playing Russian roulette.”

On the upside, Apple appears to be launching a beta testing program soon that’ll let devs test apps on up to 100 devices, which jibes with what Tapulous CEO Bart Decrem alluded to in a conversation with us. Hopefully it does roll out in the next couple days, as expected. But even then, putting beta software on a device will require the iPhone or iPod serial number, and will still have to snagged through the App Store.

number one priority is Apple
Casualties: Basically anything that threatens any of the iPhone’s core functions or key profit centres. Opera told us they aren’t developing for the iPhone because the SDK doesn’t allow apps “that interpret code, which is essentially what the browser does.” Mozilla CEO John Lilly is more acidic in this month’s Wired saying, “Apple makes it too hard” but they’re using “a business argument masquerading as a technological” one. Any formats not supported by Apple essentially don’t exist. AT&T has implied to us that it’s Apple that’s not allowing laptop tethering, though there’s obviously network considerations for the carrier, so we’re reasonably, but not totally, sure. The NY Times makes it clear that distributors of free music or video will have it tough too, so don’t expect a MyWaves or a Hulu app until the rules get clearer. Steve Jobs told the NYT that this does represent a competitive threat. “We will compete” with developers’ apps, he said blatantly.

As anyone running the 2.0 software knows, there are definite stability issues, lending a lot of credence to Apple’s sandbox for applications–could you imagine it being more unstable? On the other hand, the massive anticipation for the Pwnage 2.0 tool, the vast universe of applications we’re missing out on–not just pirated goodies, but honest-to-God mission-critical wares–shows the SDK clearly doesn’t provide everything we need it to. And it might never. But the black market app economy can and does fill the void. Apple might seek to shut it down, but the iPhone’s two-class app economy may prove to be its greatest strength.