Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Scripting your iPhone

Jerry Stratton, January 12, 2007

It looks like Apple is going to initially make the iPhone a closed system: we aren’t going to be allowed to put our own scripts on the iPhone along with Safari and Mail. On their other computers, Apple has recently been very good about making a useful programming and scripting environment, what with AppleScript, pythonw, Automator, XCode, and all of the command-line scripting languages that come with OS X.

A few years ago I saw Python running on a Series 60 from Nokia. The Series 60 wasn’t available for my carrier. My cell phone is my primary phone. I need the best signal I can get, and in our area that seems to be Sprint PCS. I wasn’t willing to switch carriers just for Python. But I would be willing to switch for HTML and JavaScript widgets, especially if I can tie into some sort of back-end database such as the SQLite that comes by default on Mac OS X.

Or imagine Automator running on all incoming calls, routing them according to who is making the call, what time of day it is, are you currently listening to music? Currently on the phone with someone?

Or an AppleScript to control the built-in camera?

I can’t speak for anybody else, but the reason I was wowed by the iPhone demo is that Jobs stressed that this was Safari, and it was running on OS X. The reason that’s impressive is the flexibility of OS X; if they’ve taken the flexibility away for the iPhone, the demo is much less impressive. The consistent user interface looks great; far above any other phone. So does the web browsing. That they were able to work with a carrier and actually implement brain-dead obvious (to consumers) functionality such as random access voice mail is awesome. And those would all ensure that I would buy the phone if it were available from my carrier. But the coolness factor was that it was OS X.

I was talking with a friend of mine last night about patents and the cell phone industry, and now wonder if this might be a patent issue. She thinks that the iPhone’s ability to choose voice mail messages non-sequentially might be patentable. In my opinion that has to fail the obviousness test; it’s something I’ve wanted in a cell phone since I first got one. But there must be a lot of things like that in the iPhone.

One of the reasons that patents are bad for software is that patents assume that doing the same old thing on a new device is patentable. But with software it doesn’t make sense. Software is its own device; its purpose is to be re-usable, transportable, and general purpose. It makes no sense that the same code on two different devices can be covered by two different patents.

If Apple lets us script the iPhone, all it is is a really small, really useful computer that also makes calls. Most of what they’re doing on the iPhone has already been patented for computers. But if we can’t script the iPhone, then it’s a cell phone, and the potential for patents is much greater, because now it’s a different device.

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