Applications May Be The iPhone's Shortcoming

Questions of performance and security are raised over Apple's Web-based approach.

June 16, 2007

3 Min Read
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Steve Jobs tried to bamboozle the crowd at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference last week with the promise of "a very sweet solution" for creating and running third-party applications. It didn't work.

"You can write amazing Web 2.0 and Ajax apps that look and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone, and these apps can integrate perfectly with iPhone services," Apple's CEO enthused.

Yet, even though Jobs says Web-based apps "look and behave exactly" like native apps, some Mac software developers don't buy it. Words like "lame" and "weeeeak" popped up in response on blogs and message boards.

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For one thing, Web-based applications don't take advantage of the iPhone's strongest selling point: its elegant and intuitive user interface. You can't tap on a Web program to launch it, and there won't be an icon on the iPhone's screen, next to Apple's icons. For developers, there's a big difference between being able to give users an icon on the iPhone's screen and telling them to load Safari and visit a Web page. For users, the former feels more like a "real," integrated solution.

Jobs: iPhony baloneyPhoto by Paul Sakuma/AP

Then there's the airplane scenario. Because they only work with a live Safari connection, third-party iPhone apps--unlike Google Apps, increasingly usable in disconnect mode thanks to Google Gears--most likely won't be available offline, at least not initially. An Apple spokeswoman says the offline availability of Web apps "has not been addressed yet."

"If you go outside of your strong coverage area, you will lose your online applications," says Robin Slomowski, a developer for Flock, maker of a Web browser for social networking.

Mathew Murphy, a technical specialist at IBM, helped Web-enable applications designed for IBM's Lotus Notes client. "The biggest complaint was that salespeople couldn't run the Web version of the application offline," he says.

What's more, because the iPhone will run over AT&T's Edge network, which is slower than broadband, Web-based apps won't run as fast as native apps. If they require a lot of server interaction, they will tend to be "slow and awkward," says Derik DeLong, a blogger on MacUser.com.

There are security implications, too. Apple hasn't demonstrated a VPN client for the iPhone, which means companies running iPhone applications may be forced to share internal documents over less secure password-protected Web pages.The applications question goes to the heart of the business value of all kinds of smartphones. For years, IT pros have said that, while e-mail access is great, the real killer app for smartphones will be access to business applications, and iPhone competitors are moving in that direction. In March, Research In Motion said it would open up the BlackBerry to third-party developers by adding APIs to the BlackBerry Java Development Environment. Microsoft offers a Windows Mobile developer platform that includes a software development kit for third-party apps.

If and when high-speed wireless connectivity becomes ubiquitous, the debate over Web apps versus native apps may become moot. "I don't think writing native code for a specific platform will be in vogue all that much longer," Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias says. "Think of the iPhone as a very intelligent platform for Web-based applications. Ajax and its brethren are the future."

But not the present. When the iPhone ships within the next two weeks, business apps won't be part of the hoopla.

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