A Tale of Two Mobile Apps: Apple iPhone vs Palm Pre

I have been absolutely astounded by the spectacular rise in the number of Apps for the iPhone. From 2008’s launch date’s 40 apps to 5000 apps three months later and now more than 50,000 apps as of the turn of Summer 2009. Last time I saw this type of programming support and take-off was with Visual Basic back in the early 19990’s … and VB did not have such an instantaneous app explosion. Credit NYTimes David Pogue for getting this spectacular rise in iPhone Apps right back in March of 2008.

So I decided to take a look at the programming strategy behind iPhone because David only mentions an SDK and lavishes attention rightfully on the other key ingredient for success – the online iPhone App Store. So a little poking around the Apple development site reveals the following:

1)You must first signup for a developer registration;
2)Then access the SDK and gobs of documentation including a good example of your first iPhone App;
3)You will need to come up to speed in Objective C, Cocoa Framework with the help of Interface Builder;
4)You will be working on Leopard OS/x Mac though VMware is working on a Windows Virtual Machine pack  running Leopard OS/x- but that appears to be the closest Windows developers can get to iPhone development.

With these helpful hints you are off to developing your own iPhone app. One can think of iPhone Apps as the culmination of two trends in IT and modern economics – Open Source Development using open APIs and the evolution of Mass Production to Mass Customization – where users buys the basic tool [iPhone], and either customize it themselves or have others do the bulk of the work for them. Oops – there is one fly in the ointment here – the source code for iPhone apps is not always available to the end user as in true Open Source Development. That is a key reason developers can charge for their iPhone apps if they so chose. The code for an iPhone app is not readily available for duplication in contrast to all Open Source applications. So now for contrast lets take a look at the Palm Pre App Development Strategy

Palm Pre App Development Strategy

Palm had long been the leader first in PDA – Personal Digital Assitant devices and then married its PDAs to a phone very successfully with its Treo line. But Palm fell behind in two key areas – supporting the Web or Internet and being able to handle the ‘server push’ needed to make mail and instant messaging work well with its Treos. Enter the Palm Pre – a smartphone with all the Web smarts plus credit for a better phone interface than iPhone by most reviewers. WebOS, the Palm operating system is credited with this advantage.

So how is the Palm Pre delivering App development ? With a big heaping of Open Source software, primarily Web based tools. The key ingredients are HTML5, JavaScript, CSS, plus Palm Pre APIs with a Java Eclipse-based emulator and development tools. The development site for Palm’s webOS is here and a view of the key tools is here. It is notable that Palm chose to use the popular Eclipse development environ along with many HTML and Web based scripting methods – this is a much broader base than iPhone’s Objective C/Cocoa combo. If you look at the Hello World Palm Pre app you will see that you are using JSON, HTML, JavaScript, CSS, etc. So if you are a Web developer you have the basic skills to develop Pal Pre apps. Here is what one developer has to say about the Palm Pre in comparison to iPhone’s SDK. Also because the Pre uses much of HTML5 developers will be using a state of the art standard which is rapidly being adopted by the the major browser vendors.

So clearly Palm has taken a much more Open Approach to its app development. Will this pay off in a wide set of apps appearing for The Palm Pre? Well there are some hiccups as the Pre App Stor will be delayed by the full release of the Pre SDK estimated for early September. There will be developers using a pre-release version; but don’t expect Pre apps to take off immediately. But the wider view is that Palm with the Pre has taken a more familiar-to-developers route using Open Source software for the bulk of its SDK and development tools. Will this win over developers ? I suspect given the openess of the tools , the DIY- Do It Yourself and the constant need for Mass Customization, especially in organizations, may tip the balance to Palm over the longer term. It is instructive to note that Google’s Phone SDK Android also has an Open and Web based infrastructure. But its number of apps is paltry in comparison to Apple’s iPhone. Those numbers for Android may pickup substantially in the fall when a number of Android powered Netbooks hit the market. But clearly Apple has a first entrant advantage and it will be fascinating to see if either Palm or Google can catch up with an Open Source approach to their APIs.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Mobile Apps: Apple iPhone vs Palm Pre”

    1. Chris –

      I am of mixed mind on this scripting choice. On one hand I like the closer to the metal approach with Objective C. No limits and generally very fast speeds. It also gives an intro into Apple coding outside of Java and DHTML which are generally above the Apple HW+SW details.

      But on the other hand I also like the standards based approach. And I am convinced that just as Java improved in speed so that it is now within 60-80% of C or C++ speeds on most computers; the same will happen with JavaScript – all the major browser vendors but Microsoft are making great improvements to their JavaScript engines. So being a Web developer I like the Google Android and Palm Pre approach of using HTML+CSS+JavaScript+HTML5 extensions – it is familiar territory whereas my C/C++ skills have withered.

      So definitely mixed emotions.

      But from the Mass Customization point of view, the HTML+CSS+JavaScript approach has much greater appeal – because a)so many more people know one or more of these tools and b)it is easier to setup powerful configuration and ini cookies/files/features with these Web based tools so that John Q. Public can easily customize their smartphone.

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