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Weekly Column

The Google Connection: Apple and Google are helping each other with the iPhone

Status: [CLOSED] comments (100)
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

I am in Hong Kong this week, my first visit since I was here with a PBS camera crew a decade ago for the handover when the former Royal Crown Colony was given back to China. I remember the surreal experience of watching Prince Charles sail away that evening on the Britannia then turning to find Boy George standing next to me. Not nearly as bizarre but even more disturbing was my experience this morning firing up Google Docs to write this column and finding the entire user interface in Chinese! A Google server somewhere detected my presence in China and very helpfully provided me the Chinese version of the networked application. I'm sure it is a simple matter of resetting preferences, but how? I can't understand a damned thing. Or is this a feature?

The notebook computer I am using is both borrowed and brand-new so it doesn't have any of my favorite software, hence my overconfident reliance on Google Docs. Fortunately it was a simple matter to download demo versions of the apps I normally use and I am up and running long enough to get through this trip.

This kind of cross-cultural experience is exactly what lies in store for all of us as we come to rely more and more on server-based applications. They usually work fine, then take a trip to China and....

Which brings us back to last week's column about Apple's decision to release Safari for Windows and how that is at least in part related to the huge sucking sound of Apple removing (or hoping to remove) money from the treasury of AT&T, Apple's U.S. partner on the new iPhone, which is scheduled to ship on June 29th. Remember I described Safari for Windows as a key component for integrating Apple's networked applications, many of which will be tied into the iPhone.

I've written about the iPhone before. It's a stellar piece of engineering, of course, and nearly as good as Apple claims. There will be early problems, of course, many of them probably related to Apple and AT&T's decision to use the mobile carrier's EDGE network (G2.5) rather than its much faster G3 service. Why hobble with lousy bandwidth a $500 cell phone?

Because lousy bandwidth is being viewed inside Apple as the very reason for the iPhone's probable success.

Huh?

Safari for Windows is a mystery only because it is a product without an associated revenue stream. Like Microsoft Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and nearly every other web browser, Safari is free, so why would Apple, a minor player in the world of Windows software, -- even bother to do a version for Windows? Last week's column (it is among this week's links) goes a ways toward explaining that, but it turns out there is much, much more.

Safari for Windows is part of a PLATFORM in the same sense that iTunes is part of the iPod platform or vice versa. In this case the platform in question is the iPhone and an as-yet unmentioned partner in that platform is Google.

The iPhone absolutely needs AJAX applications for the phone to be a success on AT&T's EDGE network. By pushing more functional logic into the browser, the bandwidth consumed per http round-trip is significantly reduced, making the phone apps faster and helping to justify that big price tag. The problem with this is that AJAX apps don't always work the same (or at all) on every browser. The iPhone has real browser support, which is good, but remember AJAX is based on JavaScript, which in this case is not so good. JavaScript isn't statically typed and each browser has its own version of JavaScript. Developers are typically forced to hand-code different versions of their AJAX apps for different browsers. With the AJAX economy dictating that browsers with big market share like IE and Firefox get most of the effort, that leaves Safari as a second-class browser and, potentially, a liability for the iPhone.

Whaddayado? Introduce a Windows version of Safari, get a million people to download it in the first week, and scare developers into moving Safari customization higher on their AJAX priority list.

Where Google comes into this story is with the Google Web Toolkit (GWT), an open source compiler that compiles Java source code into optimized browser-specific JavaScript code. GWT makes writing AJAX apps like writing regular apps in the sense that developers can use many of the tools they are used to. And GWT adds the advantage that the GWT compiler handles all the problems of working with specific browsers.

Now imagine you are the developer of an AJAX application and you suddenly have an urgent need to support Safari for Windows. The easiest way to accomplish that is through GWT.

What this means for Apple is better and broader iPhone support. What it means for Google is the chance to become the dominant player in Web application development. This is not to say that GWT wasn't already doing fine on its own, but with the added power of Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field, it can't help but succeed.

In a very broad sense this is good, too. It is good for the iPhone, which will get a far broader base of applications it can support, and it is good for Google. And in the sense that what's good for Google is good for the Web, it will help all of us.

Or maybe that's the Reality Distortion Field talking.

Apple and AT&T's decision to deliberately use the EDGE network makes more sense now in part as a way to justify that big iPhone price tag, but there is another way in which Apple deliberately chose to hobble the iPhone, at least for now. That's, ironically, through a decision involving the vaunted iPhone user interface.

Remember that a key component of iPhone marketing is that the device will run a version of OS X, making it more computer than phone. When the iPhone finally ships and some techies have voided their warranties and torn the thing apart, they'll probably find it uses a processor running at a gigahertz or more -- by far the fastest processor ever put in a mobile phone -- a processor more powerful than that in my Mom's PC. With all that power locked inside, of course some users will want to imagine their iPhone AS their PC, which Apple -- at least for now -- would rather not enable because it might hurt Macintosh sales. So they've hobbled the iPhone with essentially the same crappy text entry capability as on any other phone.

You can do a lot on an iPhone, but writing the Great American Novel is probably not on the list.

But it could have been.

There is a text-input technology called ForWord Input that could be easily used on the iPhone to allow users with almost no training to input text with their index finger at 50 words per minute, which I have to admit is faster than I can type on a QWERTY keyboard. ForWord Input uses a finger, not a stylus (nothing to lose), is patented, and comes from developers who already have other applications running in 500 MILLION mobile phones.

If I could type 50 words per minute on my iPhone, I wouldn't need a computer, which defines both the opportunity and the problem facing Apple. They are aware of ForWord Input. Maybe we'll see it in a future iPhone software upgrade.

Next week: Where the heck is Adobe in all this?

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (100)

Bob

Interesting article, but you may need to rethink your Safari analysis keeping in mind that the iPhone will soon be the primary Safari platform.

If you look generously at Safari's browser share, it's about 3% in the US, or about 6 million users. There's a good chance there will be double that many iPhone users within a year.

Apple used the iPod to get iTunes software installed on 300 million PCs, making it the dominant force in Internet media. Expect to see Apple try to use iPhone Safari as a beachhead to establishing Safari as dominant force on the Web.

jlewin | Jun 29, 2007 | 12:14PM
Jonathan Gleich | Jul 01, 2007 | 2:12AM

According to one of those warranty-killing websites, the CPU in the iPhone is 620 MHz ARM processor.

Mark Clark | Jul 01, 2007 | 5:51PM