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Here's to the crazy ones: thanks to the unofficial iPhone developers

Back at the introduction of the iPhone (was it only just over a year ago? How the time flies) we all cast a jaundiced eye at Apple's "develop for the Web" philosophy for extending the platform, while simultaneously wondering if Apple might provide a true SDK for the device of the future; I seem to recall a conversation back on an early talkcast where a couple of people (yours truly included) stated for the record that a Apple SDK was an inevitability, with the only question being exactly when.

Now, on the cusp of the official App Store and 2.0 firmware launch and ensuing flood of iPhone/iPod touch native applications, we owe a moment of acknowledgment to the folks who refused to take "Safari" for an answer when it came to making iPhone applications: the jailbreakers and community toolchain developers.

Not to take anything away from the diligent work of the Mobile Safari application developers -- many of their results, including TUAW fave Hahlo, stand up well against desktop apps -- but it's hard not to feel some degree of astonishment when a few (sometimes fractious) loosely-affiliated bands of hackers, with some help from our friends, start from the barest hints of access to the iPhone's system and create castles floating on air.

Scores of applications (some great, some not-so) including music, games, dictionaries, utilities and not one but two complete or nearly-so ports of the BSD subsystem, complete with sophisticated software deployment capabilities, are currently available for jailbroken iPhones and iPod touch handhelds. This is a notable body of work, and what makes it more surprising is that it's been done over the course of one year, absent any support from the device manufacturer (to say nothing of active discouragement) and with no particular financial incentive to proceed. This is hacking in the original, non-pejorative sense: diving into the innards of the coolest gadget under the sun to figure out how it works and how far you can take it.

As exciting as the App Store is, there's a bit of wistfullness amidst the hype and enthusiasm; we are replacing the grimy, rough-edged and self-sustaining Times Square of iPhone application development with the sanitized, "Disney/Apple" reworking of the original. Knowing that a substantial fraction of the jailbreak app developers are under 18 and cannot legitimately join the authorized development program until they come of age, we can only hope that the energy and enthusiasm they brought to the iPhone will not be lost to another mobile platform.

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