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Microsoft's slick first iPhone app

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From the "Hey, everybody else is doing it" department:

The folks in Redmond pushed out their first application for the iPhone Saturday, a mobile version of its Seadragon image viewer that lets users deftly navigate large images. Here's a video of the app in action from one of its developers at Microsoft's Live Labs.

What's significant here isn't the feature set – pinching, dragging, and tapping on images has been present on the iPhone from day-one – but that Apple rival Microsoft has in a sense extended an olive branch with its release.

Why develop software for a rival's platform? Microsoft Live Labs group product manager Alex Daley told Techflash that designing for the iPhone made sense because it's the most widely distributed phone with a graphics processing unit (GPU):

Most phones out today don’t have accelerated graphics in them.  The iPhone does and so it enabled us to do something that has been previously difficult to do. I couldn’t just pick up a Blackberry or a Nokia off the shelf and build Seadragon for it without GPU support.

So how does it work? Quite well, actually – but with one caveat. Bundled with the application are bookmarks to content that makes good use of Seadragon's ability to wrangle large files or collections of images, including a set of maps from the Library of Congress and incredibly detailed images from the US Geological survey that one could spend hours exploring.

The one fumble comes when a user taps the "Browse Photosynth" bookmark.  According to The Register, the ability to browse Photosynth –  collections of user-submitted images stitched together with Microsoft's cloud-based photo editing tool – broke shortly after Seadragon went into Apple for approval.

Launch-day bugs aside, this application is a great step forward for iPhone users. It's a proof-of-concept of sorts – proof that the software gurus at Microsoft are willing to develop for whatever platform is popular, regardless of competition, history, or clever marketing campaigns.

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