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Third-Party SDKs: The Future of iPhone Apps

by Robyn Weisman

Despite my childlike attraction to most Apple technologies, I didn't get an iPhone until last summer. Initially I was going to wait until about a year ago when my T-Mobile family plan contract ended, but after that deadline passed, I still balked at purchasing one primarily because the iPhone OS lacked copy and paste. In early 2008 I switched my home network over to the 802.11n protocol because my 802.11g network quit working in my overpopulated Hollywood, California neighborhood (I spent hours with Apple support trying to figure out the problem to no avail). Given that I couldn't transfer files between my Mac and an iPhone over my wireless network, I wanted to at least be able to paste in a Dropbox URL from an email. The thought of typing that URL by hand made less sense than tapping long texts with the 10-digit keypad on my Motorola RAZR.

I'm glad I waited both for the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone OS 3.0. I won't bore you with the many reasons why I'm thrilled with the former (passable camera, video capabilities, and GPS are among them), but I needed copy and paste for my iPhone to be more than an expensive toy. So thank you Apple, for making this available across multiple apps.

However, the iPhone OS still lacks text expansion capabilities, something that is almost as important as copy and paste in my work as a freelance technology reporter and writer. On my Mac I use a combination of Rainmaker's Spell Catcher [1] for short expansions like "ffct" for "functionality" and SmileOnMyMac's TextExpander [2] for boilerplates, signatures and HTML tags. As a freelance writer who writes primarily about data centers (or "dctr") and other IT (or "iit" so that I don't need to use the Shift key) topics, text expansion has reduced my RSI symptoms and saved my sanity, especially when transcribing interviews.

When SmileOnMyMac released the iPhone version of TextExpander [3] in August 2009 at the sale price of $1.99 (vs. $4.99), I bought it immediately even though initially you could access its capabilities only by typing your text in a composer window and then by copying and pasting the text into your notes, text, or tweet. SmileOnMyMac had released the SDK of its app at around the same time, so I was optimistic that other developers would eventually integrate TextExpander's iPhone SDK into their apps, and I would experience even greater joy with this pocket-sized computer that also happened to make phone calls.

Within a month, two iPhone apps, Tweetie 2 [4] and the iPhone version of Hog Bay Software's minimalist word processor WriteRoom [5], offered direct integration with TextExpander touch. This capability to access my snippets from within the latter two apps ultimately led me to buy both apps and to email the developers of my favorite note-taking app, Codality's Simplenote [6], urging them to incorporate TextExpander touch in a future upgrade.

Continuing, and Flipping, Mac Application Conventions -- Given the lack of inter-app communication in the current iPhone OS, the capability to use TextExpander touch seamlessly via its SDK within at least some apps makes obvious sense from SmileOnMyMac's perspective. After all, its Mac version of TextExpander has a devoted following because it works with nearly any application that accepts text entry. Greg Scown, co-founder of SmileOnMyMac, says that providing a free SDK of its iPhone app will have a similar effect. "Each iPhone app that includes TextExpander touch support makes TextExpander a bit more useful, and thus more valuable, and will hopefully drive sales," Scown says.

At the same time, TextExpander touch's impact on the iPhone app ecosystem is much greater than the impact its Mac counterpart has had. Not only does the average Mac have a real keyboard that makes typing less cumbersome (to state the obvious), but users also have a choice of half a dozen different text expansion programs, including Spell Catcher, Ergonis's Typinator, Ettore Software's TypeIt4Me, and even Microsoft Word's AutoCorrect feature. A Macintosh word-processing application like WriteRoom doesn't need to push TextExpander functionality as a selling point.

However, WriteRoom for iPhone is competing against hundreds of other note taking and word-processing apps, many of which have similar features and "good enough" interfaces to forestall potential buyers from seeking out a superior option. Moreover, WriteRoom regularly sells for $4.99 in the App Store, which is more expensive than many of its competitors, including Simplenote. So when Hog Bay founder and WriteRoom developer Jesse Grosjean discovered the TextExpander touch SDK during the middle of an app development cycle, he jumped at the opportunity to test it out. "There was no NDA to sign, the code was simple to integrate, and I was looking for ways to differentiate WriteRoom [from all the other apps in its category]," Grosjean says.

Adding TextExpander touch support has proven to be good strategy on Grosjean's part. According to Grosjean, the news of WriteRoom's TextExpander touch integration generated press for his app and caused an uptick in sales. "It's a nice feature for my app because it adds useful functionality without making my app harder to use," Grosjean says. "I've received lots of positive feedback. Typing is relatively slow on the iPhone, and text expansion can really help."

For his part, SmileOnMyMac's Scown says the company's primary goal in providing its SDK for other developers is to extend TextExpander functionality to other apps on the iPhone. "Given the environment on the iPhone, we figured that in addition to being able to compose within TextExpander, our users would want TextExpander functionality in other apps as well," Scown says. In doing so, he hopes TextExpander's SDK will become a standard component other developers will add when making iPhone apps that involve significant text entry. "We're noticing that once one app in a given product category adds TextExpander support, it's a competitive advantage for that app, [which] helps drive other apps in the category to add TextExpander support," he says.

Along with WriteRoom and Tweetie 2, TextExpander touch is now integrated into Go Mail Yourself [7], Attendance [8], SimplyTweet [9], and ToFU Editor [10], with more apps on the way.

Developing an SDK Licensing Model -- SmileOnMyMac makes its TextExpander touch iPhone SDK freely available to other developers. "We're frequently asked if we charge for royalties for the SDK. We don't. We believe this is a win-win for both TextExpander touch and for iPhone app developers," Scown says.

Mobile app developer Occipital [11] developed its barcode-scanning SDK before building its popular barcode-scanning app RedLaser [12] on top of it. "We planned the SDK all along, so we had started it with that in mind. We deployed RedLaser first before we made the SDK formally available," says Jeffrey Powers, who cofounded Occipital in 2008 with fellow University of Michigan graduate Vikas Reddy.

Unlike SmileOnMyMac, Occipital developed the RedLaser SDK as a revenue generator, making it a central part of the company's business plan. "The whole way along we intended to build one or two apps at most and then make the SDK technology available to other companies because we're not your typical app developers. We're a technology company first, building enabling technologies like barcode scanning that will facilitate other consumer applications on other things besides just the iPhone," says Powers.

In September 2009, the first app licensing RedLaser's SDK calorie-counting app, FoodScanner [13] by Daily Burn, debuted in the App Store, and Occipital has a dozen or so additional licensing agreements in place with other developers. According to Reddy, the apps being developed using the RedLaser SDK include a wine information application that tells users via barcode the best food to serve with a given wine and an app that can scan, say, a bottle of shampoo and tell the user if the manufacturer tests on animals.

According to Reddy and Powers, Occipital has set up a 10 percent revenue share that includes an initial upfront payment that later counts against what the developer owes the company on that revenue share. "We're trying to generate as much from licensing as from applications, and if you run the numbers, we need 10 applications powered by our technology that are on average as successful as anything we've launched to break even, as far as having those two revenue sources equal each other," Powers says. "We're giving much more out than we're getting back and are crossing our fingers that it'll change as our numbers get bigger."

But with licensing comes responsibility, including technical support for developers who license Occipital's SDK. "We want to help small developers succeed because that's what it's all about, but at the same time it can be cumbersome to manage and help a lot of developers," Powers says. "One thing we're trying to figure out is how we reduce the overhead that has to go into helping this guy who wants to use our stuff. It can be a real challenge because if you think about it, not a lot of these apps are going to be very successful. It's just the nature of the iPhone."

Occipital is currently experimenting with a revenue sharing model that allows small developers to integrate RedLaser's controls without having to pay upfront costs. Between this incentive and the SDK itself, Occipital's framework empowers would-be developers to build their apps more quickly and efficiently than if they had to develop every feature on their own. "If the developer succeeds, we get some kickback. If he or she doesn't, at least he or she didn't spend a lot of money up front," Powers says.

Regardless of Occipital's level of success with its current revenue model, Powers expects to see more developers with viable technologies licensing their SDKs to other app developers. "With 100,000-plus applications in the App Store, if yours doesn't have all the bells and whistles, it'll quickly get panned in the ratings or dismissed, and so you need to have more rich apps. One way to do this is by licensing chunks from different companies," Powers says. "We'll see how successful we are getting lots of applications in the store. It might serve as an example for other developers to follow, particularly if they are trying to make their companies sustainable. But even if our technology isn't successful, it's going to almost have to happen out of necessity because Apple isn't providing huge massive development blocks on their own, and you're going to have to continue working to build those, so companies are going to try to generate some profit by reselling and packing those controls and shipping them out."

Everything That Rises Will (I Hope) Converge -- Occipital and SmileOnMyMac have taken different approaches in releasing their SDKs, but their decisions to make them available point the way toward more modular methods in building future apps for the iPhone and for apps on other smartphone platforms as well. "TextExpander and RedLaser demonstrate that the iPhone developer community offers opportunity to those wishing to offer tightly focused functionality to extend broad classes of iPhone apps," SmileOnMyMac's Scown says.

In the short term this strategy seems potentially lucrative, both for the developers releasing the SDKs and for the developers leveraging them, because these SDKs could ultimately standardize processes like barcode scanning or text expansion much in the way Apple's SDKs do for iPhone developers in general.

But in the long term I see these SDKs enabling the sort of interconnectivity that has defined so much of the Internet age, from the early days of Netscape 1.0 to Web 3.0 and beyond. I can't wait to see what other features third-party SDKs will offer to make the iPhone even more valuable to its users.

For the most part, the SDKs I would most like to see will offer inter-app communication capabilities that the iPhone OS doesn't currently provide for third-party apps. For instance, I'd love a way to access my dictionary app from within Simplenote or WriteRoom. It would also be great if the Internet radio streaming service Pandora [14] could be integrated into various apps, so it would be possible to use the apps while still listening to Pandora, something that's not possible now.

What third-party SDKs would you like to see developed? Unfortunately SDKs can't work around Apple's enforced limitations, like the lack of background processing, but any feature where data can be moved via copy-and-paste, or where one app's functionality can be added to another, is fair game. Let us know in the comments, and don't hold back because the more suggestions, the better the chance that a savvy developer will act on one and make our iPhone experience that much better!

[Despite a relentlessly liberal arts background, Robyn Weisman has always harbored geek tendencies, and her introduction to the Mac finally gave her a path to explore her inner nerd while passing as a garden-variety humanist. She currently writes case studies and profiles for various IT concerns and publications, and covers stereoscopic TV and video for Daily Variety. You can follow her on Twitter [15] and read more of her work on her Web site [16].]