Homebrew: Go For It! 51
For many new Pre users, the current limited offerings in the App Catalog are a bit disappointing. If they're lucky, though, they may hear about something called "homebrew" apps, which calls to mind amateurs cooking up software in their basements. It also sounds a little like the "jailbreaking" they've heard about for the iPhone, which may be illegal (or at least unauthorized), especially when people talk about "rooting their Pre." A large number of users are just afraid to install any homebrew apps, for fear of breaching their warranty or ruining their Pres somehow. If you know (or are) someone like that, this blog has one message for homebrew-shy users: Go For It (Here's How).
Read on to see why.
First, unlike Apple, Palm neither prohibits nor prevents "sideloading" (installing apps other than through the official App Catalog). While Palm gives preferential treatment to the App Catalog apps (for example, they are included in the Updates app), the operating system has no barriers to installing other programs. There is no jailbreaking/OS-update-that-breaks-jailbreaking/figure-out-how-to-jailbreak-again cycle on the Pre as there is on the iPhone. Homebrew apps are just Pre programs that don't happen to come from the App Catalog; they work exactly the same way as those that do.
Second, the developers of the homebrew apps are often professionals who have already published apps for the iPhone, PalmOS and other platforms. They have turned to homebrew sites like PreCentral's to distribute their WebOS apps, both as a mechanism for beta testing and because there has been somewhat of a delay in the full rollout of the App Catalog. For its part, instead of penalizing homebrew app developers, Palm is inviting many of them to submit their homebrew apps for inclusion in the App Catalog; Janni Covacs' Translator app was the first of many likely PreCentral app "graduates" when it debuted on the App Catalog on September 3, 2009. Section 4.3 of the license agreement for Palm's official software development kit makes it clear that there can be other ways besides the App Catalog to distribute applications:
Developer acknowledges and agrees, that absent a separate written agreement with Palm, Developer may not distribute any Application except as allowed by Palm's formal approved distribution process and channel (the "Application Catalog")
Not the most encouraging language, true, but it does *acknowledge* the possibility of authorized distribution outside of the App Catalog. Again, the fact that Palm has welcomed homebrew apps into the App Catalog suggests encouragement rather than suppression of homebrew, as does the number of threads about homebrew software that Palm has let remain on its own forum.
Homebrew apps, at least from the major hosting sites, are also safe. While some have "rooted" their Pres (gotten developer-level access to the Pre's operating system) for various purposes, there's no need to do so just to install homebrew apps. Desktop programs like Jason Robitaille's WebOS Quick Install, and Pre-based apps like Preware and PreLoad, allow easy point-and-click downloading and installing of homebrew apps not only from PreCentral but from other sources, without any user need to root or hack the operating system. Additionally, the Pre's Mojo development environment places a layer of security between the program and the Pre's already-secure Linux operating system, making malicious programs very difficult to create, and the number of users installing and testing the homebrew apps (over 1,000,000 separate downloads from the PreCentral homebrew repository from August 5th through September 4) means that any attempted malicious software would have been quickly spotted and removed.
Users needn't worry about breaching any warranty by installing homebrew apps either. Palm's limited warranty for the Pre contains no general exclusions arising out of 3rd party software (although Palm won't itself promise anything about how 3rd party programs will work, nor will it cover damage caused by any third party product).
In short, there is no downside, and a huge upside, in installing homebrew apps to one's Pre. The only things that new homebrew users need to worry about is being overwhelmed by the selection of apps available through homebrew sites...and finding it even harder to put down their Pres once they start installing all the cool new apps.