Picture a game âe” let’s call it SimSooty. It’s a multi-player, real-time, hand-held simulation in which students reduce the carbon footprint of Canada by investing in bike paths and bus routes, use alternative energy sources and eat locally. Students chat with each other in game, vie for prizes and can zoom in and out of their virtual Canada with simple pinch and spread finger gestures.

Now, consider an educational tool: Axis of Evolve. On the same hand-held device is a colourful two-axis graph. The x-axis represents GDP per capita and the y-axis displays infant mortality. The world’s countries are displayed as coloured circles, the diameter determined by population. You tilt the device to the right and the graph comes to life, the circles floating and growing as time moves into the future. You tilt it to the left, and time rewinds, the circles drifting around the axes like toy balloons in a breeze. Tilt the device up, and a new graph, with new axes, appears. Shake it, and you return to the beginning of the experience.

No, neither of these applications exists, yet. But in a few months they might. You could make them happen. Two weeks ago Apple announced a software development kit (SDK) for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

If you’re not into software development or Apple products it might not be on your radar screen. It should be. Many observers believe Apple’s created a third software platform with the SDK. The first platform is desktop and laptop computers, the second, early mobile phones, like those using the Symbian, Palm or Windows Mobile software platforms. The Software Development Kit has the potential of turning the iPhone and the iPod Touch into true mobile computers. Both share the same OSX-lite operating system and very similar functionality – though the iPod Touch lacks phone features. Right now, both devices have a limited number of built-in applications, like weather and stock widgets, mail and music/video players.

Before the SDK was released, non-Apple developers could only create limited, web-based applications that didn’t store any data on the devices and stopped working once the devices’ connection to the Web was unavailable. For a lot of developers this was all foreplay, no consummation. The urge to create true apps was so strong, some wily coders created applications for “jailbroken” iPhones even before the SDK was released.

The SDK means that, with Apple’s blessing, lots of non-Apple developers can now create full-on games, databases, image-manipulation or word processing applications for the mobile platform. The programmers will have access to the contact database, photos and other data stored on the phone, and will be able to create their own databases and use all the touchscreen gestures and accelerometer sensors in both hand-held products.

The accelerometer is the sleeper here. In game demonstrations at the SDK unveiling, spaceships and game characters were controlled simply by tilting the device through three-axis of motion. No joysticks, no buttons, just body English. And, the graphics look amazing. In a couple of ways, the SDK is really a game changer. The venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins thinks so.

At the SDK event, the firm’s most high profile partner, John Doerr, announced a $100 million fund (called the iFund) to invest in startups that develop applications using the kit.

Companies are already off to the races. Apple has released the SDK and a beta version of the iPhone 2.0 software that will be available for all iPhones and iPod Touches in June. A limited number of developers have already been accepted into Apple’s development program and more will be added soon.

So, in three months, we’ll start seeing some amazing applications on a portable, wireless computer. Those applications will be available in an Apps Store that will be part of the iTunes Music Store. And, users will be able to download them wirelessly, anywhere. Developers can set their own prices and Apple will take 30 percent. But, if you want to make your application free, Apple won’t take any cut and it will still be part of the Apple Apps Store – if it’s approved by Apple (no porn or bandwidth sucking games).

A lot of smart, small, young companies are going to get venture capital to make this happen. They will be the Adobes, Macromedias and Broderbunds of the next decade.

Why should you care? Think about the applications I imagined above. You want to get students thinking about carbon footprints and the environment while they’re keeping your organization in mind? Create a branded mobile social media game they can play on the same device they use to make calls, listen to music and watch movies on (yes, iPhones will get cheaper). Make it free and get it in the Apps Store. You want to make globalization, infant mortality in developing countries or war spending come to life? Put some of Hans Rosling’s data in the hands of folks who can tilt and turn their way to understanding.

I think it’s important to step back from the fact that this is Apple âe” a large, controlling corporation âe” and look at the bigger picture. This really is a third platform that allows us, all of us, to create really rich, multimedia content and experiences that can become a portable part of our audiences’ lives.

When the game changes, it’s the wrong time to sit on the sidelines.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...