SAN FRANCISCO — It might have been the first Steve Jobs keynote speech that wasn't all about Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs.
Rather than wowing developers gathered at the company's annual developer's conference June 9 with his special blend of surprise and salesmanship, Jobs kept it simple. His pitch for the heartthrob device of the moment, the iPhone 3G? It's faster, it's cheaper (at least up front). Oh, and you can get it in 70 countries.
Instead, Apple left it to developers — and iPhone software boss Scott Forstall — to put the crowd into a swoon. Up the developers came, like contestants at a junior high science fair, to plug their work. Demos came from online auctioneer eBay, mobile social-networking start-up Loopt, blogging service TypePad, the Associated Press and game developer Pangea Software. The cutest — and most telling — application might be Pangea Software's racing game, dubbed Cro-Mag Racer. It's like Mario Kart, without the controller or the console.
Apple's plan to get developers cranking out applications for the iPhone seems to be working. "Every time I turn around, they seem to do magic," says Steve Romero, president of boutique software development shop Critical Path Software.
Pretty slick, and developers at the three-day conference were eager to find out more. Eddie Hu of Penpower was on a mission to find out if he'll be able to take advantage of the iPhone's built-in two-megapixel camera for an application he'd like to build that would allow users to take snapshots of business cards and dump the information into a contact's organizer.
Developers — and Apple — are just starting to figure out what the iPhone can do. "The problem I see is I don't know what kind of processes Apple will have in place to control the usability," says Tom Thornton, usability expert with Perceptive Sciences in Austin. Right now the iPhone is easier to use than rivals such as Nokia's N95. "But as you start packing new things into a phone, it always decreases usability."
Preserving the much vaunted iPhone usability might in fact be one reason why Apple was slow to open up the iPhone to outside developers. Now, however, it's inviting those developers into its tent. The best example might be developer MooCowMusic's Band. Once confined to hacked iPhones, the developer was sharing stage time with Steve Jobs.
But while Apple is opening up its gizmos to outside developers who once had to hack their way in, it's not being completely hands off.
Customers will have to make pit stops at Apple's App Store to download applications onto their iPhone or their iPod Touch. Apple will take a 30 percent cut of all sales, but developers will be able to sell their software for any price they see fit — or give it away for free.
The App Store also gives Apple the opportunity to filter out applications that could compromise security, or are buggy and don't run well. However, there are no guarantees outside developers will be able to replicate Apple's knack for building intuitive interfaces.
Beyond that, however, Apple is giving developers a free hand. Before, developers were limited to working with the Web browser built into the phone. Now developers will be able to use a grab bag of Apple supplied tools to craft applications. Developers are giving the new package good marks: "It's actually relatively easy," says Shivakumar Thirunayam, Skyscape's senior software engineer.
While Apple is making it easy for users to get these applications, however, there don't seem to be any rules that will make the applications built by other company's as easy as the software that comes with the phone itself. "Surprisingly it's open, so it's in the developers' hands," Romero says. Is he worried about the usability of all those new applications? "The end users will dictate how important that is to them."
© 2012 Forbes.com