WWDC: Devs Get a Peek at the Shape of Platforms to Come
At its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple is putting the spotlight on its newest platform for third-party development, the iPhone. The company has also confirmed that its next version of OS X, Snow Leopard, will focus on behind-the-scenes performance improvements rather than end-user functions.
If you did a quick news search on Apple this week, you could easily conclude that CEO Steve Jobs took the stage Monday morning, talked for 20 minutes about a new 3G iPhone, then called it quits.
But the bulk of Monday's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote address, during which Jobs gave Senior VP of iPhone Software Scott Forstall plenty of stage time, was focused on -- you guessed it -- developers.
Since this year's WWDC falls just before the release of the iPhone 2.0 software update and the introduction of the App Store, most of the opening act focused on the iPhone software development kit (SDK) and the possibilities the platform has opened to developers.
However, Apple did confirm one rumor surrounding the Mac platform: the existence of Snow Leopard, the next version of OS X.
It was only last October that Apple put OS X 10.5, aka "Leopard," on the shelves. Mac users have come to expect new features that are easily accessible to the end-user with each new OS, and Leopard came through with handy functions like Spaces, Stacks and Time Machine.
Last week, rumors surfaced that the next OS out of Cupertino would be called "Snow Leopard." News that Apple had already begun work on a new operating system wasn't startling -- the company's approach to updating its OS is to sell more frequent, cheaper and smaller updates than something like Microsoft Windows. If it ships in about a year, as Apple said it will, Snow Leopard will arrive right within OS X's usual update schedule. The company is also a little less shy about previewing updates to software than it is about previewing upcoming hardware.
What's unusual about Snow Leopard is what's not there -- new end-user features. Instead, Snow Leopard will focus on the performance of OS X, including technologies such as Grand Central for multi-core processor support and extended support for Open Computing Language (OpenCL).
Possiblities for Developers
The lack of end-user features is something developer and blogger Dustin Bachrach found disappointing. "I want to see some great end-user technologies, but I guess we will have to wait for that from Apple," he told MacNewsWorld.
However, he continued, the behind-the-scenes features Snow Leopard promises to deliver may pave the way for new features from parties outside of Apple. "With the advancements of OpenCL, Grand Central, etc., developers are getting incredible abilities to compute large-scale computations quickly and simply," he said. "This is invaluable for any type of application. Speed is always important, and being able to develop for Snow Leopard will really boost what developers can make."
Apple has by no means been stingy with features on OS X over the years, Bachrach pointed out, and perhaps it's high time the company ironed out wrinkles in its code. "A more stable OS makes it better for users and developers, and I think we're going to notice it," he said.
On the other hand, selling Snow Leopard to the average user may prove difficult. Advancements in stability and security will probably make it a worthwhile buy for Bachrach, but without new end-user features to trumpet, Snow Leopard may find that everyday users will be hard targets. "No matter how hard you try, just telling them that it's got Grand Central on it or OpenCL will not get them to buy," he said. "Apple needs to prove to us why we should upgrade."
That said, Bachrach wouldn't be surprised to see Apple reveal that Snow Leopard indeed has plenty of new end-user features by the time Macworld rolls around next January.
App Store Ready to Roll
While developers will have to wait to see what else Snow Leopard has in store, the iPhone platform is just about ready to make its debut as a developer-to-user marketplace. New software, new hardware and a new online store will hit the ground in rapid succession.
When the iPhone first launched, Apple appeared resistant to the idea of third-party developers creating software for its new device. Users had, and still have, the option of jailbreaking their iPhones. Such an operation voids the warranty, and some iPhone owners who tinkered too extensively with their devices have ended up with broken phones after trying to get a software update directly from Apple.
The answer Apple provided at the time: Web apps -- online applications that could only be used through the iPhone's Safari browser. Despite Web apps' limited access to the iPhone's functions, some appeared online, with varying degrees of practicality.
Last March, Apple released its SDK (which it has been continuously updating in beta) as well as its road map to allowing third-party developers to make applications that would reside on the iPhone itself rather than the Web. Apple's plan: Let developers send in whatever apps they can dream up, retain absolute control over what actually goes on sale, sell everything through an exclusive Apps Store (much like iTunes), let developers name their price, and give them 70 percent of their apps' revenues.
Apple's plan for distribution could cut straight through some of the problems that have plagued mobile application developers in the past, such as device and platform incompatibilities and the struggle for visibility in the marketplace. That's the hope of developer and Mac Developer Tips blogger John Muchow.
"One of the challenges since day one for mobile developers has been getting their applications in front of potential users," he told MacNewsWorld. "With the iPhone, applications will be available through Apple's recently announced App Store, which is accessible on the phone as well as through iTunes. This is a great approach, given that all Mac users (iPhone or otherwise) are familiar with iTunes."
The money side of the equation is equally important, he said. "My understanding is that Apple will offer developers 70 percent of the revenue. Not an unreasonable amount, given Apple will provide the storefront and manage all that goes with it."
Tools of the Trade
After working with the iPhone SDK, Muchow called the kit "very comprehensive, providing access across all areas of the device."
Particularly impressive to him was the media layer, which gives developers the chance to give their applications many of the same finishing touches found on iPhone apps designed in-house by Apple. "Many of the standard animations that make the iPhone so compelling (screens sliding, flipping over, etc.) are included in View classes in the UIKit. OpenGL ES is a mobile version of the OpenGL standard and is the engine behind 3-D graphics. When high-frame rates are in order (think games), OpenGL is the answer."
Apple's support of eager iPhone developers impressed Bachrach, who attended the iPhone User Interface Design lab at WWDC.
"An Apple designer spent 30 minutes with me analyzing my app and answering my questions about design," he said. "This 30-minute session was remarkable. With Apple's help, I've focused my iPhone user interface to be more clear, intuitive and simple. This is something I couldn't have found anywhere else, especially for free. I highly recommend this Lab for all developers."