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Taking the iPhone into your own hands

With Apple tight-lipped about info, experts probe the device and develop new programs.

July 09, 2007|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Fueled by caffeine and curiosity, more than 300 laptop-wielding tech geeks filled a borrowed office this weekend to unlock the mysteries of Apple Inc.'s iPhone.

Apple has given out scant information about the gadget's guts and how its novel browser interacts with websites. That has presented a challenge to people who want to create software programs for the iPhone.

So the enthusiasts planned the weekend gathering, which they called iPhoneDevCamp. The organizers love the new device and did not want to whine about Apple's reticence.

But the event was not all reverential oohing and ahhing. They spent the weekend trying to bend the iPhone to their will, to make it do things they wanted it to do and some things that Apple might prefer it didn't.

"It's about embracing constraints," said Chris Messina, 26, an entrepreneur in San Francisco and an event organizer. "These constraints aren't holding us back. They are giving us focus."

Held at the San Francisco office of Adobe Systems Inc., the event was more akin to a musicians' jam session than a technology conference. This was a classic DIY -- do-it-yourself -- event: No one was allowed to quietly lurk without contributing, and participants set up chairs and did other small jobs.

They wore stickers classifying themselves as developers, hardware testers, designers or Web coders. They sat shoulder to shoulder, tapping on their computers and listening to music on headphones.

An online message board with pleas for help and announcements of breakthroughs was projected on a big screen. "Anyone know how to tell iPhoto that NO for the millionth time I do NOT want to synch the photos from my iPhone?" one message asked.

Even before the event, hackers had begun working on cracking some of the constraints of the iPhone. The multifunctional device -- a mobile phone and iPod music player that also allows Internet surfing -- went on sale June 29 with AT&T Inc. as its wireless carrier. Want to activate the phone without subscribing to AT&T? The fix is now available online. Want to jettison the Internet address bar to make more room on the screen? That's online, too.

Apple didn't sponsor or endorse the event, which Messina and his friends pulled together in three weeks. Nor was there an Apple representative available to answer their questions. As a result, much of the collective effort was channeled toward fixing things that Apple might have easily explained.

For example, one iPhone irritation the throng figured out was how to let websites take advantage of "landscape mode." Displayed photographs automatically flip horizontally, then spread out when the iPhone is turned on its side, but most Web pages don't. The event's hackers solved that problem, spreading the word on how to set up Web pages to respond to the iPhone's movements.

Adobe's initial requirement that participants sign a nondisclosure agreement was quickly jettisoned as not befitting camp spirit. A willingness to share source code for a new program earned developers points with their campmates.

The goal was not just to create the killer app, Messina said -- "It's about killer participation."

The event kicked off with a welcoming dinner Friday. By Saturday, Jory Felice, 41, a senior Web developer at Belkin International Inc., a Compton-based maker of computer accessories, was happy he made the trip. Using software code posted online, he enabled some of his company's Web pages to work better with the iPhone. For his part, Felice offered coding help to the person sitting next to him.

"The spirit was generous," he said. "People get a sense of pride that their solution works for a lot of people."

But there was competition, too. Some camp attendees were oblique about what they were working on. Once a few started coding, they could not stop, moving their hacking to all-night coffee shops and offices nearby.

Developer R. Tyler Ballance gave up sleep Saturday night to figure out how to flip through the top 10 photos on Flickr, Yahoo Inc.'s image-sharing service, with the touch of a finger.

On Sunday morning, he heard there were two camp-going Flickr employees trying the same thing. "I'll do it better," said Ballance, who works for another photo-sharing service, Slide Inc.

Another program that generated buzz at the camp was created by tiny AppMarks of San Francisco. It allows an iPhone user to create a customized home page with iPhone-like icons. For example, a user can put an icon for the cable station CNN on their home page if they want to go to the site every time they turn the iPhone on.

Paul Neyrinck, a developer at AppMarks, received instant feedback as he walked around the room. Some attendees wanted to know how AppMarks would make a profit from it. One person suggested ways to improve the interface.

"You show them something and then they instantly share their ideas," said Neyrinck, 43.

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