Under the Bridge

App Store Alternatives

So as an established iPhone developer, no doubt you’ve had your share of frustrations with the App Store and its approval process. Or maybe you just don’t like giving Apple it’s 30% cut. Or the … challenged … reports and payment process. What to do? What to do?

Well, there’s always the jailbreak crowd, we suppose — and they have indeed listed almost two dozen apps now! — but call us crazy, we just kinda tend to assume that the somewhere around 8% of the crowd that jailbreaks their phones in the first place are not heavy spenders on software, if you know what we mean and we think you do. If you have any evidence that the people listing Cydia apps are making a buck off it, let us know; but we’re just going to assume that it’s not so.

That doesn’t leave anything, does it? Well, according to Dow Jones, the people at Hottrix have sussed out something:

SAN FRANCISCO -(Dow Jones)- Steve Sheraton has a new magic trick: He’s making Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) App Store disappear.

The magician turned App developer has begun selling his $4.99 “iHypno” mind- reading application for Apple iPhones and iPod Touches directly from his Web site. That means consumers can buy the program without visiting the App Store, the official software bazaar that operates under Apple’s iTunes store.

“It’s based on technology encouraged by Apple,” Sheraton said during an email interview. “It’s totally legal and possibly the way you’ll see other apps delivered in a year or so.”…

Intriguing, yes? We thought so when it came up in this thread on iphonesb. The consensus was that they were using HTML 5 features — specifically the offline application cache — and CSS 3 visual effects which are hardware accelerated on the iPhone and all to provide an application-like experience which was essentially just a Web bookmark far as the phone was concerned.

So, in our never-ending quest to inform and entertain you the Gentle Reader, we decided we’d invest the big five bucks in checking out just how acceptable the experience actually is. So off to the site we went, picked an application, paid through a pretty standard credit card web purchase interface, and in short order got the email

Hi there Alex Curylo,
Thanks for purchasing MindBeam!
Please find below instructions to get up and running with MindBeam in no time. Be sure to practice before performing.
Here are the files you will download to your iPhone/iPod touch (not your computer).
Open this email on your iPhone or iPod touch.
Personal download link on iPhone: http://is.gd/XXXXX
Please keep the link to yourself because it is tied to your payment information.
The link will not work on your home PC, just on your iPhone or iPod touch.

OK then. So we tap on the link on the iPhone, and up comes in Safari

So we do, and after a shortish download we get


Heh. Well, that certainly does confirm the general consensus that these “applications” are cached websites, indeed. But are they actually comparable to native apps?

Why yes, indeed, so they are! Our new MindBeam “application” has animation, device rotation detection, native alerts, and so forth … seriously, it’s more polished and functional than a lot of native apps we’ve seen. There’s nothing that we see that jars the illusion. What’s really interesting is that when you tap the “More Tricks” button that takes you to their website, it looks just like the “application” is quitting and Safari is launching. So either these offline web apps really are run as separate processes, or they’re doing the quit-zoom animation themselves and then letting the standard UI come up. But there certainly is no indication that your “application” is running in Safari — if, indeed, it actually is — or in any way other not acting just exactly like every other native app.

So! That was a most illuminating little experiment, wasn’t it? Apparently it is possible to put together a completely under your control shopping experience for the iPhone that is close enough to providing a native application so that our eagle-eyed vigilance didn’t notice anything jarring, at least not once we got past the bookmarking “install” and into the “application” itself, and we do assure you we were looking.

And the really intriguing thing is, an application developed this way would almost certainly be marketable in the same fashion to Palm Pre users, Android users, and anybody else who uses WebKit or anything else HTML 5 compliant. Sure, they’re probably trivially easy to pirate, but really, what isn’t? Personally, we figure that “display the registered user’s name prominently at startup” is as much copy protection as you need to keep honest people honest, and you can’t keep any other kind honest no matter how much you work at it instead of doing something useful.

So, to sum up, mad props to Hottrix for showing us how to work around the App Store whilst providing what appears to be a perfectly acceptable user experience … and we are definitely going to add to the to-do list getting up to speed on just exactly what classes of application functionality are practical to provide in HTML 5!