Two Apps that Lower the iPhone Development Barrier

When the iPhone first launched, Steve Jobs announced that the web was the iPhone’s development platform. Despite the many initial groans that there wouldn’t be a true app platform for the device, a healthy ecosystem of web apps created specifically for the iPhone began to appear. Eventually, Jobs and company relented and added a full on platform to the phone allowing anyone to create applications that took advantage of the phones unique, native features. But that left the web application developers out in the cold.

They faced two options: either learn Objective-C and Cocoa so they could make an iPhone app version of their iPhone web application, or stick to their web app and operate at a disadvantage since they did not have access to many of the iPhone’s native features.

Enter Big Five and PhoneGap. Both projects have essentially the same goal — allow web developers to access the iPhone’s native functions, such as taking photos, geo location, vibration, and the accelerometer via the web — but each takes a slightly different approach.

The Big Five Browser Approach

Big Five is an “extended browser” for the iPhone. Essentially, this is Safari with hooks into the iPhone’s native APIs. Web apps accessed via Big Five, which was developed using the current iPhone SDK and the UIWebKit component, can take advantage of the browser’s access to the APIs to do things like use the accelerometer or GPS by calling on a special JavaScript API file.

Apps can create a special Big Five URL that can be bookmarked on the iPhone home screen and automatically opened in Big Five instead of regular iPhone Safari.

The problem, though, is that Big Five only works for developers if users have it downloaded. And the biggest barrier to getting it on user iPhones is that Apple has so far rejected it from the App Store. Apple’s stated reason for rejecting the application is that it provides “limited utility to the broad iPhone and iPod touch user community.” In reality, it seems likely that it was rejected over security concerns.

The PhoneGap “AIR” Approach

PhoneGap is a container for web applications running on the iPhone that allows them to access the accelerometer, GPS, sqLite, and soon camera and vibration controls. Basically, PhoneGap creates a location bar free web browser that points to a specific web application URL, and provides a JavaScript API for accessing native iPhone features.

As I understand it, developers can then package everything up using the PhoneGap SDK into a specialized iPhone application version of their web app. PhoneGap even has a web application of their own that allows developers to “to quickly package their web app into a native iPhone app by providing a URL, a name and icon graphic [which then] automagically create[s] a native iPhone application.” The native iPhone app could then be submitted for App Store inclusion.

AJAX developer Dave Johnson compares PhoneGap to Adobe AIR, though there’s still a lot of work to be done to package it all up. The comparison is sound, however. “The aim of PhoneGap is to bring mobile phone development to web developers just as AIR has brought desktop application development to the web community,” he writes.

Conclusion

The benefits of Big Five and Phone Gap are clear. They allow developers to deploy applications on the iPhone (and theoretically their methods could be replicated on other mobile phone platforms) without having to learn a new programming language. iPhone native applications that can take advantage of iPhone APIs but be written in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript make a lot sense for developers and there is understandably a lot of buzz for these applications in the mobile developer community.

The next step will be to get Apple on board.

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  • John

    Unfortunately, Apple is far more protective of it’s product that Microsoft has ever been. The only true & legal way at this point to get legit applications onto the iPhone or iPod Touch is to buy a Mac, any other method and Apple will make it very, very difficult if not impossible on you (especially if you want to deliver it to the masses through the AppStore). Some may say it’s security, I believe that it’s more along the lines or protectionism.