You can live without the new iPhone, but it's getting harder to live without the App Store.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 8 2009 8:48 PM

You Can Live Without Apple's New iPhone

But it's getting harder to live without the App Store.

Apple's Phil Schiller announces a new iPhone. Click image to expand.
Apple's Phil Schiller announces a new iPhone

I didn't go to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday expecting a revolutionary new iPhone. That's a good thing, because I didn't see one. Instead, Apple unveiled what folks in the computer industry call a "speed bump": The new iPhone is nearly identical to the old iPhone, except it's faster. It also records videos and understands voice commands—two features that many other cell phones have long boasted—and it includes a digital compass, which makes its maps program much smarter. Don't get me wrong, I'm not upset about any of that stuff. My iPhone, like any computer, sometimes slows to a crawl, and Apple says that the new iPhone 3G S is twice as fast, on average, as the old one. (The S stands for "speed.") The phone goes on sale on June 18, and I confess I'm one of the suckers who'll stand in line to buy it. But not without a bit of hesitation.

The mobile phone market has lately become one of the most innovative corners of the tech business. The Palm Pre—with its stylish new operating system, its elegant design, and its amazing wireless battery charger—certainly seems worthy of my attention, as do the many phones based on Google's Android OS that are expected to be released this year. What's more, after a couple years of using an iPhone, there's a lot I hate about it—AT&T's terrible cellular network, for instance, and the cumbersome way it switches between different programs.

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Still, what I saw on Monday cemented my idea that the iPhone is becoming nearly impossible for any other mobile gadget to beat. That's not because the device itself is perfect. It isn't. Over the last year, though, the iPhone has attracted something that none of its rivals can match: a devoted following of developers who are building amazing programs for the device. There are now more than 50,000 applications available in the iPhone's built-in App Store, and Apple says that the pace at which developers are adding programs is accelerating. None of Apple's competitors comes close to these numbers. Android is in second place with 5,000 apps, and the Nokia and BlackBerry stores have just over 1,000 apps each. If you buy a Pre, brace yourself for a comically small number of add-ons—today you'll find just 18 apps in Palm's online store.

Earlier this year, Apple unveiled version 3.0 of the iPhone's operating system; the software will be available for all iPhones and iPod Touches on June 16. During the past few months, app developers have been creating programs that take advantage of the new operating system's features, and on Monday Apple invited several companies to show off what they've built. The demos were amazing, an innovative and exciting counterpoint to Apple's same-y new hardware. Through these programs, the iPhone becomes something like a universal remote—a device that spices up all kinds of everyday interactions.

Consider auto-sharing service Zipcar's new app: When you need wheels, load up the program to find available cars displayed on a map around you. You can pick a car you like and reserve it right from the phone. That's when the real fun begins. As you approach the Zipcar lot, you find two buttons on your phone: honk and unlock. Yes, your iPhone can now double as your car keys. (I guess that means if you lose it, you're doubly screwed.)

Airstrip Technologies, a development house that makes medical apps, showed off a more serious version of the same concept. The company has created a program that allows physicians to review their patients' vital signs from anywhere—your doctor can get a live picture of the pulsating waves of your cardiac rhythm, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and other stats. There are many more such programs: Johnson & Johnson is making an iPhone-enabled diabetes monitor that lets people study their blood glucose levels on the go; Pasco makes scientific probes that hook up to the phone and let kids have fun in science class; and two companies, Line 6 and Planet Waves, have built an app that lets guitarists control their amps and MIDI guitars from their phones.

Demos of these last two apps didn't quite work on stage at the WWDC, which is uncharacteristic for Apple events. (Apple reps assured us everything had worked perfectly in rehearsal.) Fortunately, the audience was composed mainly of developers, folks who were willing to give their fellow programmers the benefit of the doubt, and who were effusive in their applause. Perhaps the most popular app on displaywas Apple's own Find My iPhone, which does exactly that by making your phone ring even if you left it in silent mode. (So I guess you're not at risk of losing your car keys after all!) The app, which is available only to subscribers of Apple's MobileMe service, also shows your phone's physical location on a Web map, and it lets you erase your data remotely if it's been stolen.

Is it fair to compare the riches of the iPhone App Store with its rivals' offerings? After all, the iPhone store has been open since July 2008; the Android shop opened a few months after that, and the Palm Pre just came out this weekend. Won't those other stores eventually catch up with Apple's offerings?

I doubt it. The software industry is a network-effects business—as developers create more programs for the iPhone, it attracts more customers, which in turn makes it even more attractive to developers. The developers have flocked to the device even though Apple's terms are arguably more onerous than those of other stores. The Android store, for instance, exercises no editorial control over the apps that make it to the store. Apple, on the other hand, has been known to boot apps for what seem to be completely arbitrary reasons. But Apple has also given developers deeper access into key parts of the phone's OS. It now lets programmers build apps that access the phone's built-in Google Maps, and it lets them hook up programs to peripherals (like those MIDI guitars). The one thing still missing: background processing. This means that you can only run one third-party app at a time—so you can't listen to, say, music from the Pandora app while you're reading your e-mail. In time, this might change.

There is, of course, an irony in Apple's success. For years, Apple fans claimed that the company made the best PCs in the world, hands down. Nevertheless, it was hard to argue with the fact that Windows PCs simply ran more programs. Now Apple is in the position once occupied by Microsoft. Over the next few years, Palm, Research in Motion, Nokia, Sony, and others are sure to create some transcendent mobile devices. But the hardware hardly matters anymore. How is anyone going to compete with all these amazing apps?

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.