It can be difficult to write software for a gadget without being able to touch it. But that has not stopped developers from rushing to create applications for the Apple iPad.
For small start-ups and big Internet and media companies alike, the iPad, and tablet computers in general, beckon as the next wide open technology frontier.
For many of them, getting apps onto the iPad will be a challenge, at least at first. Apple has provided only a few companies with iPads on which to design and test their software before the device’s release on April 3.
The rest have had to make do with software running on a Mac that mimics the iPad, a disadvantage when dealing with a device that Apple is pitching as a new way of interacting with media.
The few companies that did receive the device—including Major League Baseball, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times —have been subject to Apple’s long list of rules. The companies must agree to keep the iPad hidden from public view, chained to tables in windowless rooms. This although the basic look of the iPad stopped being a secret in January.
And Apple has told all other developers who have downloaded its iPad programming tools to remain silent about their apps until later this month.
Apple’s addiction to secrecy does not seem to have damped enthusiasm among developers.
“There’s something about the newness of the iPad that’s driving an even greater level of excitement than what existed in the last year for the iPhone,” said Raven Zachary, president of Small Society, an iPhone software company in Portland, Ore.
Mr. Zachary has organized workshops for iPhone developers and plans to do the same for the iPad. “People see this as an opportunity to do things that have not been done before and get that first mover’s advantage,” he said.
Some companies are even opening up and talking about their iPad plans, risking Apple’s reprisal. Sure, they are salivating at the prospect of the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen and fast processor — but also at the demonstrated willingness of Apple customers to pay a few dollars to get apps onto their devices.
Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble are working on apps for buying and reading electronic books, even though both companies sell their own e-reading devices and Apple will offer its own iBooks app. The expectation is that the iPad will give a big lift to the e-book market, benefiting the whole industry. Neither company was given an iPad for testing.
“We have actually developed a tablet-based interface that redesigns the core screen and the reading experience,” said Ian Freed, vice president for Kindle at Amazon. “Our team had some fun with it.”
The Kindle app for the iPad, which Amazon demonstrated to a reporter last week, allows readers to slowly turn pages with their fingers. It also presents two new ways for people to view their entire e-book collection, including one view where large images of book covers are set against a backdrop of a silhouetted figure reading under a tree. The sun’s position in that image varies with the time of day.
At the offices of Barnes & Noble’s digital unit in New York, 14 developers have occupied a windowless room since January, completely redesigning the company’s iPhone app for the iPad, according to Douglas Gottlieb, its vice president of digital products. The developers hunch over Macs around a big table, and printouts and notecards are taped up on the walls.
The new app will let users flip through books quickly with finger swipes and customize fonts in multiple colors and sizes. Mr. Gottlieb said the company was talking to publishers about adding multimedia to digital books.
Apple said last week that it was starting to accept submissions from iPad developers who want the chance to get their apps into the App Store before the iPad’s release. But both Amazon and Barnes & Noble say they plan to wait and test their software on an actual iPad before submitting it for Apple’s review.
Developers know from experience how important timing can be. Some of the earliest developers to release programs for the iPhone were also the most successful. Then the number of apps in the App Store—currently 150,000—became overwhelming. A developer who is out in front with an application that is tailored for the iPad stands a better chance of getting noticed.
But there is the chance that an app that ran just fine on the simulator will have glitches or just feel wrong on a real iPad. Many developers say they do not want to take that risk.
“As much as we’d love to be there on Day 1, a misstep could kill the train before it even gets out of the station,“ said Wade Slitkin, chief executive of Panelfly, which makes a digital comic-book reader for devices like the iPhone and has deals with publishers like Marvel and Sterling.
There are real-world factors that may go undetected with a simulator, like the weight of the device and how people hold it. To compensate, engineers have been printing out sample pages and pasting them onto magazines, “to get a feel for holding it in our hands,” said Stephen Lynch, chief technologist at the company.
Shervin Pishevar, founder of SGN, a mobile gaming company, tried to get a jump on the competition by attending the iPad’s unveiling in San Francisco in January, then spending every possible moment using one in a demonstration area. Mr. Pishevar said he believes that the large iPad screen will allow families to sit around the device and play turn-based Monopoly-type games.
His company is also developing games that players will operate by linking an iPhone or iPod Touch to the iPad over a wireless network and using the smaller device as a game controller — somewhat like the motion-sensitive remote for the Nintendo Wii.
“We are going to be able to build games and entertainment applications that are as good as a console-type game,” Mr. Pishevar said.
Among large media companies, The Journal, The Times, Timemagazine and NPR will have apps for the iPad available when it goes on sale, according to people briefed on those companies’ plans. Natalie Kerris, an Apple spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Most of the existing apps for the iPhone will run on the iPad as is, either stretched to fit the screen or in a smaller window. But many developers are focusing on revamping their most popular iPhone titles for use on the iPad.
Neil Young, co-founder and head of the iPhone gaming studio Ngmoco, said his company was updating several games, including a multiplayer game called Charadium where players draw items and take turns guessing what the picture is. It will get new controls and a roomier blank pad to draw on.
“There are so many more places to touch on the screen,” he said. “We can have a lot more fun with it.”