Just How Will iPhone Apps Work?

iPod TouchEver since apple announced that applications will be coming to iPhone (and iPod Touch, pictured) there’s been one question on my mind more than any other, just how will it work? We already know thay applications will be bought and sold through the iTunes store, presumably limiting the distribution to those apps Apple approve. This is fine as far as distribution goes, and it falls in lone with Apple’s view that iPhone is dangerous, and all apps should be kept on a short leash. After all, it’s what we’re used to when it comes to music. A closed distribution system, and locked into the Apple eco system. Applications are different though, but why?

The big difference between applications and music is that applications require the source device in order for development to take place. Music can, within reason, be created anywhere and then ported over to whichever platform you like. iTunes for example. So this begs the question, how will developers get applications onto the iPhone in order to test them?  As far as I can tell, and I may be naive here, but I can only see two possibilities.

The first is that Apple only allow trusted developers to create applications for iPhone.  I actually think this is the most likely approach, but also the most foolish.  One of the great strengths of OSX is the wealth of third party applications available for it.  Things like Quicksilver, Text Mate and all the other applications from small software houses.  It’s entirely likely that applications of this diversity and quality simply will not be available for iPhone.  Even if Apple open up the SDK to as many developers as possible, there will still be some out there that miss out.  And that means we all miss out.

The second possibility is that Apple only allows unsigned applications to be run on iPhone if they have not been purchased through iTunes.  So if you want to run a full app, you have to purchase it.  This will allow application developers to develop on their own iPhones and then only submit the application to Apple when it’s good and ready.  While this will allow development to thrive, it will also open up iPhone in a way Apple may not be entirely comfortable with.  If you can get unsigned apps running, then there will be developers out there who will simply develop apps and never submit them to Apple.  Effectively releasing them as free/share ware or open source.  Even if this involves having to install the development kit/tools, people will do it for free stuff.  Of course, if the SDK is good enough at abstracting the power of iPhone, Apple may feel a bit more comfortable about it.

There are other options, for instance a merger of the two I’ve detailed above but allowing only a cut down interface to the hardware unless the application is verified by Apple.  It’s also possible that Apple release special development kits for iPhone, which will not be generally available to the public, but will allow unverified applications to be run on them (presumably isolated from the network, lest they bring down the west coast cellular network).  However, this would be a similar situation to that found in the games development industry, where developers have special development kits.  The kits are expensive enough to deter all but the biggest, best funded and most commited developers.  Those who know the costs can be recouped.

It’s a really interesting challenge for Apple.  On the one hand they obviously want to keep iPhone as closed as possible for the purposes of quality control and security, whilst on the other hand leaving it open enough to encourage a healthy development community.

Which way do you think Apple will go?  Or have I missed something obvious?  Let us know in the comments.