Putting the i in iPhone

by Erica Sadun

Over the last week, a number of web developers have announced Web 2.0-style applications for the iPhone. There's even a site dedicated to these (although it seems to be down now after all the recent Digg activity.) The idea goes like this: if you've got to connect to the Internet with your iPhone, why not publish your Dashboard-style widgets as actual web pages? After all, you can use them on your Mac, on your iPhone and now in Windows. With a bit of low-cost hosting and some decent "lickable" design, congratulations, you've become an iPhone developer.

The problem for me about this kind of approach is that moving applications off your phone and onto the web means that you've got buy into both a huge paradigm shift as well as an actual data shift. After all, your data is there on the web, while you're standing here with your iPhone. Does that work for you?

Do you trust the web? How many stories have you heard about Gmail accounts suddenly losing their data? And do you really trust Google and Yahoo enough to entrust all your calendar, word processing and spreadsheet data to them?

What about your things to do list? Do you trust a third-party developer to hold onto that data? And connecting means a data plan, which costs money possibly lots of money. As one comment on my recent post here at O'Reilly noted, are you willing to pay every time you want to check a to-do list? What about if you only use WiFi? Are you willing to wait until a hotspot shows up before you can see what items are on your shopping list? Or before you can add butter, paper towels, and lettuce to that list?

Of course, if you can log into your home computer with the new Leopard Mac-to-go features announced at the WWDC keynote, a lot of these problems become less of an issue. You don't have to worry as much about trusting your data if you are hosting your own data on your home computer. But you're still left with the connection issue. Has Apple figured out how to make a data plan so cheap that ubiquitous computing becomes the real killer iPhone app?


2007-06-18 14:32:46
I really think that this type of development does require a huge change in the way that developers plan for data use and availability. I believe that a big key to this will be the availability of client-side data cache layers like google gears. Is it any coincidence that webkit builds since May 31 support google gears? Perhaps then you don't have to pay for every time you check that to-do list, just to sync updates. And if the developer does it correctly, the data residing on the server will be encrypted with a key from your device(s) or even some identity based encryption.

2007-06-18 15:09:03
In response to "Do you trust the web? How many stories have you heard about Gmail accounts suddenly losing their data?" etc.

How many stories have you heard about hard-disks failing and people suddenly losing their data? Do you trust a 3rd party developer to update their application so it runs on the latest hardware and OS? Are you willing to pay for a new computer every 18 to 36 months just to keep running your apps? I hardly even use Google apps but even to me your arguments sound like FUD.

I've just been playing with TiddlyWiki[1]. It's a Wiki implemented in browser-side Javascript, it stores it's data in the page itself. All the iPhone need do is provide some secure method for javascript to access local storage, or even just the local HTML file, and suddenly the web apps will become free of the network requirement. Maybe it's time to consider other options beyond the conventional desktop app.

The phone isn't even out yet. Why not just wait a few months until the fuss is over and decide on it then.

[1]: http://www.tiddlywiki.com/

2007-06-18 15:45:11
If you got your data in your disk, you can backup as much as you want, it's up to you to secure your data.
If you can just keep them out there... well I don't know. I'm not the "computer network" kind of guy.

2007-06-18 16:21:01
I want a simple database and also a shopping list program such as I have on my Treo (jFile and jShopper or similar). I need these to work while I'm traveling and off the web. I want these to work even in the US where I don't have a good connection (like my house). I also don't want to wait for a connection to be made and data to be downloaded. I store passwords in my database and not sure I want them being transmitted over the internet.
2007-06-18 17:35:00
For a developer, some of what bugs you matters. ...

But for a user, who does not understand any of the technicalities, it is all magic anyway.

No one on the outside really cares what curtain the magician hides the magic behind, we just want to be entertained.

2007-06-18 19:07:57

The OneTrip shopping list application that everyone is looking at is all JavaScript and does not require an Internet connection.

Just because it is a webapp doesn't mean it requires Internet access.

Erica Sadun
2007-06-18 19:10:15
Hey David, it doesn't require an Internet connection any more than say, a dashboard widget would, but how are you going to get that JavaScript applet *onto* the iPhone?
2007-06-18 19:35:41
If you consider how many existing mac os x widgets are Games, or mere info scrapers, rather than places for users to CREATE and STORE data, I don't think the remote server aspect is much of a problem. And in this case, people have been potentially creating iPhone apps ever since Tiger introduced widgets.
2007-06-18 20:53:58
A link to a slate article about disconnected web apps, and google gears, and the like.


A quote from the article. ...
But now Remember the Milk has added support for Google Gears, a new browser plug-in for Firefox and Internet Explorer that helps developers disconnect their wares from the Web. I click an offline icon, and RTM temporarily stores my to-dos on my PC and uses bits of Javascript code stored locally to let me add, delete, and edit tasks. I can add items to my list while on a plane or in a car. Once I'm online again, it syncs everything back to the Web. It's a neat, simple, and practical way to take advantage of the Net even when the Net's not around.

2007-06-18 21:08:37
I've also started collecting a list of pre-launch applications for the iPhone, as well as some musings on potential iPhone browser interaction gotchas on my site.

Once devs have had a few days past launch to refine their apps, I'll be releasing a icon-grid style category dashboard for the apps... a launcher of sorts, where devs can keep their latest urls, icons etc published. I don't think reviewing or really critiquing any of the apps just yet will be particularly productive because unless you work in Cupertino or happen to be Mr. Mossberg, nobody really knows basic things like... will the browser scale to 320 pixels wide at 100% by default, or will it pretend to be a larger display? Cookie handling? Session support? What happens if you're driving and change IPs 12 times in the course of using the app?

On the development front, I think that it's just so darned easy for 90% of the stuff out there to run a hosted app, but I agree that trusting the provider/host is a serious issue. I could give a crap what someone does with my shopping list, but if I'm storing meeting notes or more sensitive data, I know that I, personally wouldn't be comfortable with anyone storing the info but myself on my own hosting platform.

I'm still secretly wishing for an SSH client and a non-web-based FTP, but true applications like that are still a ways off, if ever. Even for a web based ftp... with a browser based file field work? What does the iPhone's file browser/directory structure look like? Tons of questions, and we're all just guessing right now at the answers.

Erica Sadun
2007-06-18 21:09:13
Jack: Gears would rock indeed--but have you seen any sign that it's available for Safari? I was under the impression that it was MSIE and Firefox only...
Walt French
2007-06-18 21:11:04
I'm getting increasingly excited about the iPhone paradigm shift. It's got the potential -- I can hardly be sure that Apple isn't going to screw up -- of being the Web 2.0 for anybody who has one.

It's easy for me to imagine a world where everything you do on your iPhone is synched with your DotMac. Browser history, RSS reading status, bookmarks &c. thru Safari. Music and videos thru iTunes. Photos. Who knows, Keynote, Write and Sheet/Chart, always-accessible documents whether you're out & about or at your desktop. Or maybe you'll use Google apps thru Safari.

Fun to dream, anyway.

Yes, there ARE lots of cases where you want the data fixed on the handheld, so you can do read-only access to nightly synchs, even if you're in a dead zone. (E.g., I fly a lot and web apps don't excite me.)

The iPhone isn't prepared to deal with this. But NO, you don't really want the 3000 widgets, most of which are utter junk (a countdown to the next Boise State homecoming game?!? That is NOT an "app") whether they're free or not. And anybody who thinks they've got a revenue opportunity by putting grocery lists on websites for $5 per month will quickly get a no-confidence vote.

Go back for a re-read of "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." When Copernicus proposed that planets circled the sun, instead of tracking complex cycles around the earth, his equations predicted the locations LESS WELL than Ptolmey's. But it was a powerful insight that soon crowded out the old paradigm.

Likewise, iPhone has the potential for introducing a new paradigm and the #1 challenge is how to wrap our heads around it.

2007-06-19 01:42:10
You know, the iPhone (or, at least, my impression of it) leaves me with a conflict. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly a great gadget and it's making me say "I want one". On the other hand, when I look at the details, I think there are much better devices out there for me. I guess it's the old heart versus head thing.

It's not a replacement for my iPod (it doesn't have enough storage), it's not a replacement for my phone (it doesn't have 3G, for example), and now it's not looking like a replacement for my PDA (unless someone produces some really clever Javascript apps which I can use offline).

So there's my big problem - I want an iPhone when it comes out, but I can't think of any justification for getting one!

2007-06-19 04:28:14
"Has Apple figured out how to make a data plan so cheap that ubiquitous computing becomes the real killer iPhone app?" you ask. How cheap does data need to be? In the UK, flat-rate mobile data plans are currently pitched at about half the price of flat-rate home broadband plans, so we've been able to enjoy the fun of Google Maps on our mobiles without worrying about the cost for some months now. As for that paradigm shift of putting your data on some 3rd-party's web site, the growth of Web 2.0 suggests we've mostly gotten over that hang-up (and if not, how about hacking something together where your Mac is your own private server, and use Get to My Mac to find it).
The real problem will be getting enough reliable bandwidth when you want it, not how much its going to cost. Its taken the mobile telcos long enough to work this out for voice calls so be ready for a rocky ride when everyone starts using their own mobile data channel.