Monday, 4 February 2008

The future of applications on mobile phones

The mobile industry is developing at an enormous pace. For consumers and industry professionals alike there is a lot of uncertainty as to where things are heading. Customers, friends and co-workers frequently ask me what is going on with xyz technology so i've decided to write down some of these questions and attempt to answer them systematically. If you have any questions, post a comment and i'll try to answer them.

Q. Doesn't the iPhone mean the end of all other manufacturers mobile applications and mobile browsing?
A. The iPhone is a huge marketing and sales success in absolute terms, but relative to the size of the market for mobile devices, mobile applications and mobile internet it is still a small player. From the market reports i have seen on the internet less than 1% of devices in the US is an iPhone. I see the iPhone as being comparable to the iPod. The iPod is very successful, but there are still many other succesful music players around. The iPhone and iPod are comparable in another way; the iPhone is a completed closed device. Development of third party applications and content is rigidly controlled by Apple just as iTunes is completely controlled by Apple. If you want a device on which you can install a random MP3 fragment (as a ringtone for example) then you won't be getting an iPhone.

Q. Isn't Windows Mobile the mobile business platform for the future?
A. Windows Mobile has increased its market share dramatically during 2006 and 2007 and is increasingly being used for business applications. That said, it is still a minority player in the mobile devices arena. Nokia's Symbian platform and Apple's iPhone have sold far more units in the same period. In the PC world the last 20 years has seen one dominant platform (microsoft) and several small players (IBM with OS/2, Apple and Linux). The mobile industry is in the same stages as the PC industry in the early 80's. There is NO DOMINANT industry party with respect to operating system or hardware platform. In the last 10 years we have seen Psion and Palm go from market leader to irrelevant. Windows mobile has not even been market leader but is already being surpassed by Apple's iPnone. And there is more to come, open standards based Linux phones are starting to emerge. It will be interesting to see where that will be heading.

Q. Can you browse regular websites on mobile phones.
A. Short answer: No! Long answer: Mobile devices generally have the computing power of a 1993 PC computer. Try and remember (if you were over 12 at the time) what internet browsing was like when you first heard of it:
  • Buggy browsers called Netscape or Mosaic.
  • Pictures taking forever to load.
  • No fancy effects.
  • No audio, definitely no video.
  • Lots of waiting.

On your desktop there a a few varieties of browser software most notably MS Internet Explorer, FireFox, Safari and Opera. Incompatibilities between these browsers have caused many problems for users and developers alike over the years. The situation with mobile browsers is much much worse. There are dozens of varieties; each with its own quirks and bugs. Websites for mobile devices have to take this into account.

The waiting was due to the limited network bandwidth. And while desktop users are now used to high speed dsl or cable connections mobile networks still have limited bandwith. Regular webpages are generally just too big and take forever to load over a mobile network.

The limited features were due to the limited processing power of the hardware. While deskop (and laptop) hardware grew more powerful, the websites we visit became more complex and contain all sort of program scripts / code. Mobile hardware just cannot cope with this, so mobile phones are given restricted browsers that ignore a lot of what is going on on todays websites. In effect you can't use the websites.

Q. Shouldn't we aim to make the same web pages for all hardware (both desktop and mobile).
A. This is known the 'One web' theory. I would like for this to be true, but the reality is that most websites contain stuff mobile browsers cannot handle. I also think that this is not going to change soon. Desktop and Laptop PC's evolve at the same rate as mobile devices so the gap is going to remain. Already many websites use extensive javascript coding (which doesn't work on most mobile browsers) to make them more interactive and that trend is set to continue.
There is also a usability issue. Regular websites are generally designed for screens with 1024x768 pixels. If you reduce the window size to 178x120 and imagine you have no mouse and only the numeric part of your keyboard you will get an idea of how difficult it is to use regular websites on a mobile device. This warrants designing seperate pages for mobile devices.