Bye Bye USB Syncing: Is the iPad Bad for iPhone OS?

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Users of Lexcycle’s terrific iPhone e-reader app Stanza (which was acquired by Amazon last year) are expressing their disappointment over a recent update that removes the ability to sync and share your book library over USB from the program. When pressed as to why exactly the feature had been removed, Lexcycle responded that it was at the request of Apple.

Before I say anything else, it’s my duty to report that Apple is indeed acting within the scope of the agreement it has with developers in requesting the removal of this feature from apps. As of now, USB syncing is still a private API, which means developers shouldn’t technically be using it. To get around this, many have implemented the feature using the iPhone’s Digital Camera Image Management folder, but that also requires the use of private APIs.

Whether or not developers are violating the development agreement isn’t at issue here, though, really. Apple has quietly acquiesced to the use of USB syncing in many apps, not just Stanza, until now. The timing is not inauspicious. Apple’s only begun to enforce this rule following the unveiling of the iPad, and, more to the point, of the iBookstore.

Ars Technica believes this is only a temporary measure. They point to an alternative apparently in the works in iPhone 3.2:

Though users of Stanza, PDF readers, numerous audio editors and sequencers, and other apps will be frustrated, the good news is that Apple has a mechanism planned to address both syncing and file sharing issues. The beta SDK for iPhone OS 3.2 has APIs for accessing an on-device shared storage folder, which will be mounted as a readable and writable disk when plugged in to a computer via USB.

Ars then goes on to point out that iPhone OS 3.2 is currently only intended for use with the iPad. The same features could later appear in an update for the iPhone, but they may not. We could see an OS forking at this point, and that might mean a significant difference in the available features for each device.

Not to mention that there’s no guarantee the iPhone or the iPad will ever get the same kind of USB syncing functionality back. The iBookstore means that Apple has a monetary reason to prevent other content providers from getting its e-book products onto its devices. And in the meantime, while everyone waits for a potential future solution, Stanza users and others are left completely out in the cold.

The iPad represents many new possibilities for iPhone developers, but at what cost? Will Apple close its iPhone OS platform even further to ensure that it maintains the lion’s share of content control? Will it quietly hamstring legitimate competitors as it extends its power over the media users view on its devices? Not necessarily, but with the advent of a brand new device, we should watch closely to make sure we aren’t losing something irreplaceable in the bargain.

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