Mobile Movement

By on April 26, 2007 6:33 am

At last month’s Open Ajax Alliance meeting in New York, a good chunk of time was dedicated to revisiting what, if anything, OAA should do about “Mobile Ajax”.

I’m something of a pessimist about what most people mean when they say “Mobile Ajax”, but the OAA meeting included several bits and pieces that gave me a lot of reasons to be less grumpy. Firstly, the device manufacturers are starting to get it. One of the attendees made the prescient point that the content devs, the phone vendors, and users alike are all trying to route around the OpCo’s. This suddenly put a lot of things in perspective for me: is wifi a stupid thing to put in a phone? You bet. But it beats the OpCo network. The list of cat-and-mouse features like this goes on and on. At some point something’s gotta give.

At the meeting someone was passing around a very slick Nokia device that has done more to convince me that that the web on phones isn’t dumb than anything else I’ve seen in the last year. Clearly, the UI issues are horrendous, but good screen + beefy CPU + wifi + thumboard makes a lot things bearable. Better yet, there was word that many of the issues I’ve raised about what’s useful input and output in a mobile web context (hint: text is no longer king) is starting to be addressed by the phone vendors. Better yet, there’s rewnewed work at the W3C to address some of the most pressing issues. In fact, it seems that the mobile browser vendors might be attacking the problem of rich content types better/faster than their desktop counterparts. An 18-24 month handset turnover rate will help make up for a lot of lost time.

But I mentioned Ajax and not just the web.

Ajax/DHTML lives in the nexus between a lot of the various web standards which means that it’s subject to the vagaries of all of them. No matter what the specs say, the lowest common denominator of what the clients ship is what the “standard” really is. The mobile browser market has been hugely fragmented for a very long time, but that looks to be changing. I think it’s pretty safe to say that in the next 3 years we’ll be down to three major rendering engine “flavors” in smartphones and that KHTML/Webkit derived browsers will probably carry the day for folks not on MS or Blackberry devices. Frankly, I didn’t expect it to happen this quickly, but I’m gald of it. Clearly, there are major issues still to overcome, but relative standardization on browsers brings the mobile web into alignment with a world that desktop web devs can approach. The sooner good browsers trickle down, the sooner we can start the painful process of forgetting what we think we know about doing webapps and building better idioms for mobile apps.