Intelligent Machines

Developers Use a Workaround to Make iPhone Apps Do More

App makers sometimes bend the rules by using a tool geared toward corporate IT departments—and Apple knows it’s happening.

When Eldar Tuvey wanted to create an iPhone app that compresses data in order to save users money, he discovered it wouldn’t be as simple as just building it and submitting it to Apple’s App Store for people to download.

This is because the app, Snappli, works by intercepting Web traffic and sending it through remote servers for analysis, something that, strictly speaking, wouldn’t otherwise be possible on the iPhone.

So Snappli requires users to not only install the app but also a special piece of software known as a configuration profile—something usually employed by IT departments to manage hordes of iPhones, since it enables remote control of device settings and credentials. This trick allows the Snappli app to interrupt your wireless network data in order to compress it.

Other app developers are using the same approach to bend the rules. Creating a custom iOS configuration profile is gaining favor as a method for implementing features that are, in theory, restricted by Apple. And it’s not being done in secret—at least two of these apps have been approved by Apple and are available in the App Store.

While Apple ranks second to Google’s Android in the smartphone software market (it captured 34 percent of the U.S. market in August, compared with nearly 53 percent for Android, according to comScore), it is still very popular with developers. Several app developers think Apple’s attractive enough that it’s worth taking advantage of this particular quirk of the operating system. An Apple spokesman declined to comment on the topic of configuration profiles.

While the configuration profile will likely remain a niche tool needed by only some developers, the trend suggests that app innovation may be close to hitting a wall created by iOS restrictions. One person who feels this way is Heikki Koivikko, lead mobile developer for Wajam. His company’s browser plug-in lets you see content from friends on social networks when you search on over a dozen websites, including Google, Bing, and Amazon.com. Installing Wajam on an iPhone requires the installation of a profile on your smartphone, which makes the same social search feature possible in Apple’s Safari browser (Wajam isn’t compatible with the latest version of iOS, which was released late last month, so Wajam is working on a new version).

Koivikko believes Wajam provides a valuable service, but says he wishes the company could offer that service without requiring the configuration profile as a workaround. He thinks the need to use a configuration profile to innovate can hinder creativity on the development side.

Tuvey, of Snappli, says requiring users to download a configuration file does restrain adoption. Of every 100 people that download Snappli, about five of them don’t go through with installing the profile so they can use the app, he says. “That is concerning, but it’s not a showstopper,” he says.

Neither Tuvey nor Guy Rosen, CEO and cofounder of fellow data compression app Onavo, say Apple needs to change its restrictions. Like Snappli, Onavo shrinks wireless network data via a configuration profile in order to save users cash.

Onavo works on Android smartphones by creating a new virtual private network connection. Like the installation of a profile, users have to approve this step, but it doesn’t require the installation of a second piece of software on the phone.

Walter Luh, founder and CEO of Corona Labs, which offers software that makes it easier for developers to build apps for multiple mobile platforms, thinks that the use of the configuration profile makes sense for some apps. But it needs to be clear to the user what is happening when they install a profile, he says, as it can be a confusing experience. When he tried to install Onavo on an iPhone, for instance, it prompted him to install a profile, which he says could be intimidating, “because I don’t know what they’re doing to my phone,” he says. “Also, it wasn’t clear to me how I would go into settings to remove this configuration profile.”

There are drawbacks to using one of these profiles, both for developers and users. Depending on what the configuration profile enables, you may be able to have only one of these apps working on your phone at a time. For example, it is only possible to have a single profile on an iPhone that manipulates your wireless carrier’s access point name, or APN, as Snappli, Onavo, and Wajam all do. Beyond that, some user reviewers complain that using Onavo and Snappli can lead to issues such as voice mails that never arrive.

Still, it may not be an issue that many consumers will face, as Luh and other developers don’t think this is a tool many developers will need to use. Luh says we may see it in utility apps—the apps that help us expand and improve the functions of our smartphone. “But most people don’t download these things. Most people download Angry Birds,” he says. 

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