Sunday, February 03, 2008

Apple and Web 2.0

For the past eight years, Apple has been doing their best to jump onto the Web 2.0 bandwagon. In 2000 they introduced a free "iTools" service available only to Mac users that provided an e-mail account, easy webhosting, photo upload (the iPhoto application could put entire photo albums online automatically via iTools with a single click) and Internet-based system backups/synchronization across systems. They replaced the free iTools service with the subscription-based .Mac in 2002, which would cost users $99 a year. There wasn't really anything all that revolutionary about the iTools/.Mac service, other than the ease at which people could upload pictures. At that time, sites like Flickr, Google's Picasa and Facebook's Photo albums didn't exist. It was (and still might be) the easiest way to get your photos on the web.
In April of 2005, Apple released the Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" operating system. This version of the OS added a new feature dubbed "Dashboard." Dashbaord is essentially a special layer not normally shown in which special mini-applications dubbed "widgets" live. The layer is summoned and dismissed using a hotkey, and widgets can be dragged around while dashboard is displayed. The key aspect that makes dashboard relevant to Web 2.0 is the fact that widgets are programmed in HTML, JavaScript and CSS. They essentially live within special micro web environments, and can easily fetch information from existing web sites or provide specialized interfaces such as a weather grabber, new e-mail query for GMail or a current Orioles baseball scoreboard. The possibilities are endless, as any data that exists on the web can be clipped and displayed in a widget. Other similar widget engines are available (Yahoo provides a free one that works on both Mac and PC), but Dashboard is probably one of the most widely used, mostly because it actually ships with every copy of Mac OS X.
Apple's 2007 entrance into the mobile phone market also marks their latest attempt at leveraging Web 2.0. Rather than provide an SDK to allow developers to make custom applications that could be compiled to run on the iPhone, Apple instead insisted that the advanced Safari web browser on the device would be sufficient to run any application that users required, thanks to it's advanced JavaScript/AJAX and CSS rendering support. Developers would simply deploy their AJAX-based Web 2.0 apps to the web, and users would bookmark them.
While it was a good idea in theory, the developer base objected not being able to develop advanced local apps that could take advantage of the full feature set of the iPhone. Within a month, developers had assembled a rogue toolchain that could build binaries that ran on any hacked iPhone. With each successive release, it's been a game of cat and mouse between the hack developers and Apple, coming up with a hack that would allow third-party software to run. Eventually Apple conceded, and will be releasing an official SDK later this year.
The latest iPhone firmware release that just came out in January 2008 adds the ability to create a home screen icon for Web 2.0 applications as an alternative to bookmarking them within the web browser. This finally puts the web-based apps on the same level as the Apple-provided apps, and gives users a more intuitive interface for launching these apps. Perhaps if Apple had provided this from the beginning, developers wouldn't have been quite as eager to hack the phone to get their apps on there. Regardless, there are a number of innovative and useful Web 2.0 apps already available for the iPhone, and the addition of native apps will only make the phone a better and more versatile platform for both users and developers.

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