The iPhone is barely a few days old and already some savvy startups are figuring out how to make their applications work on it—without cutting a separate deal with either Apple or AT&T. All of the application widgets currently on the iPhone are strictly controlled by Apple (although Steve Jobs recently announced he is going to open up that process). Startups like Transmedia and Jajah, however, have found another way to get their Web-based applications on the coveted iPhone.
What's the back door they are taking advantage of? The Safari browser that comes with every iPhone.
Transmedia's Glide Mobile service—which lets you upload to the Web music, photos, videos, Word docs and Excel spreadsheets and then access them from many smart phones—now works on the iPhone as well. That means using Glide, you can edit documents and spreadsheets you had previously uploaded to it.
One of the drawbacks of the iPhone right now is that it only allows you to read such documents, not edit them, because Microsoft has not yet developed a version of Office for the iPhone. With Glide, you can also stream music or videos from your personal Glide jukebox on the Web without taking up memory on the device.
Transmedia CEO Donald Leka says that he and his engineers bought a few iPhones when they went on sale over the weekend, trained his service to recognize requests coming from iPhones, and tested it to make sure Glide works on them. (Since the iPhone does not support Flash, he uses an HTML implementation instead). Says Leka of Apple's restrictive policies concerning third-party applications:
Jajah is also making its app iPhone-friendly, offering cheap international VoiP calls to iPhone users through a simple Website. So now you can make VoIP calls on your iPhone. Apple's cellular partner AT&T cannot be too happy about that.
This is not the sort of mobile application you'd imagine that Apple or AT&T would sanction. For instance, I'll be surprised if we see a version of Skype that works on the iPhone anytime soon. Because Skype requires a separate downloaded application in order to work. But in this case Jajah just uses the Web (you type in both numbers and it makes the connection over the Internet, using the cellular network only for the last, local hop).
The iPhone is only a few days out of the gate, but examples like these show how the walled gardens that mobile carriers have erected around the Web can easily crumble. All it takes is a decent Web browser.
Update: In response to some of the comments below, I've changed the headline of this post from "Web 2.0 Startups Bypass Restrictions On the iPhone" to "Web 2.0 Startups Add Features to the iPhone." I agree that the first one was a bit misleading since anyone can develop a mobile app that works on Safari.
The iPhone does not have a separate software development kit. The way Apple is opening up the iPhone to outside developers is by using Safari as its development platform. Jajah and Transmedia are merely among the first to do so.
Still, the larger point remains valid: startups can now add features to the iPhone that Apple or AT&T may not like. And don't believe that Apple has given up all control here. As far as I know, it isn't opening up the application widgets on the iPhone to just anyone, and those are more tightly integrated with the operating sstem and the hardware than any app on Safari.