280 North's Atlas bridges the gap between Web Apps and native iPhone applications

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Back when the iPhone first launched and the App Store was still a twinkle in Apple’s eye, the only way to get your goods onto the platform was to develop them as an iPhone-optimized web page – otherwise known as an iPhone Web App. Unable to make use of much of iPhone’s functionality (like the GPS, camera, etc.), Web Apps were quickly considered the inferior option when Apple unshackled the iPhone SDK, opening the doors for the standalone Objective-C apps which have since flooded through the App Store. It was great news for Objective-C developers and consumers looking for rich applications – but not so much for those who’d grown accustomed to developing for the web.

At the recent Future of Web Apps conference in Miami, Y-Combinator-backed 280 North announced Atlas, a drag-and-drop visual editor for building desktop web applications with Cappuccino, 280 North’s Javascript-based framework. Near the tail end of the presentation, 280 North co-founder Francisco Tolmasky gave the audience a sneak peek of one of Atlas’ best features: iPhone support. The real trick? Atlas can wrap up iPhone Web Apps like native applications, granting them access to a significant portion of the iPhone API and allowing them to be sold through the App Store.

This lowers the barrier of entry for iPhone development substantially, allowing those with Javascript knowledge to create fully functional applications on the platform without requiring them to learn a whole new language. The same limitations that apply to Javascript apply here, presumably – in other words, don’t expect to be throwing down ultra-rich OpenGL-based 3D games, but mid-range apps (such as Twitter clients, RSS readers, etc.) should be completely doable.

How the API-related stuff works is still a bit of a mystery. 280 North is keeping mum on their methods for the time being – not only for the sake of maximum impact when Atlas launches in the coming months, but also because they’re still determining which of a handful of approaches will work best. I’d assumed that Atlas compiled the user’s code within a wrapper which served as a middle man, passing API calls to the iPhone and returning the results, but a quick chat with Tolmasky indicated that this wasn’t necessarily the case.

If it works as demonstrated, it’s a wonderful idea. We’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

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