Mobile, Web 2.0, Hype, Reality, and Openness

Three cheers on the whole Mobile 2.0 != AJAX meme. In putting the Mobile 2.0 conf together I’ve heard from a lot of people with new technology who think that because they have something that resembles Web 2.0 practice that makes them Mobile 2.0. I’m hoping they’re in the minority and that’ll just go away soon. Unfortunately every once in a while things have to get nasty though, and I’m the kind of person who would rather be an asshole to a small group of people rather than let a larger community suffer because they’re getting misled. It’s not going to come to that though right?

So if Mobile 2.0 isn’t about the technology what is it about? One of the primary aspects is the user generated content angle I mentioned when I posted about the Mobile Web 2.0 book. But even that term has started to get thrown around like magic pixie dust. Allowing users to make your content for you doesn’t cut it. This is about users communicating and interacting in meaningful and comfortable manner, which you as a service provider support in such a way that it both maximizes the experience the user has while generating something that you can reuse. That’s sustainable, and very very hard to do correctly. Slam together some basic XHTML pages for users to fill in their interests, allow them to put up a picture, claim to be a mobile social networking site, and then spend all the time you should be using to evolve your product shouting from the rooftops how you’re a mobile 2.0 company cause you have user generated content? No, that doesn’t qualify.

That goes double for mobile AJAX, which in every incarnation I’ve seen so far is nothing more than an ECMAScript (ECMAScript being the way geeks pronounce “JavaScript”) programming environment with the rendering done via HTML/CSS. Why is that misleading? Because what everyone thinks when they hear mobile AJAX is that mobile browsers will work to render existing websites built using AJAX. Never the case. Probably won’t be true for years and years – if ever. After learning that “Mobile AJAX” has nothing to do with web AJAX people spend a few hours or days talking about what exactly the differences are. And somehow those people come out the other end thinking that mobile AJAX is a good idea. Frequently saying things like “leveraging existing skillsets” and “highly dynamic user interface” or any of about a dozen other substanceless snippets of standard party line indicating their transformation from a rational thinking being into a brainwashed zombie is nearly complete.

How anyone that’s been paying attention to the evolution of mobile can say that mobile AJAX being something like web AJAX is a benefit is beyond me. Like the way that WML being kinda like HTML made that a raging success? No, I don’t think so. Saying that mobile AJAX is a good idea is putting the cart before the horse. AJAX on the web is a hack, every developer knows it’s a hack. What makes it an elegant and compelling hack is that AJAX based websites work with the browser the user already has installed on their desktop while increasing the usability of the web application. That’s the real “AJAX model” that the mobile world should be following: turning the handset and software the user already has into a more pleasant to use and useful device through clever programming. HTTP, Javascript, XML, DHTML, and CSS may or may not be a part of that. But if you need to get the user to install another application in order to use “Mobile AJAX” you’ve already lost. Installing an application ranks just about even with random crashes as far as user experience goes.

Mobile widgets in general seem to be suffering from the same kind of hype bubble that mobile AJAX has been overtaken with. I’ve lost track of how many mobile widget applications I’ve played with. Some were interesting, most of them were not. The tricky thing about widgets is that some of the ideas are so new within the field as a whole that it’s hard to tell the enabling platforms from the limiting landgrabs. Is the platform allowing you to expose your content to mobile users? Or attempting to lock you into their method of communication and presentation? Some don’t even allow users to create their own widgets, they’re just presentation wrappers for a bunch of small simple functions. Is that even a widget system? I tend to use Widsets as my positive example when it comes to mobile widgets. Why? Cause the basics are built on existing syndication formats used on the web already, creating a new widget based on existing content is a simple operation that a user without programming background can do, and sharing and promoting your widget is given as much attention as creating it. There’s a whole set of questions around widgets that are still hard to define let alone answer. Om and Niall are running a widget focused conference in San Francisco on Nov 6th. Unfortunately the same day as the Mobile 2.0 conference. I’m sure it’s going to be a fantastic discussion and I wish I could be there for it.

Every once in a while someone will say something like “but it’s a consistent platform to build on top of across different handset types.” I can only imagine that they’re joking. Even if it weren’t for the long list of failed unifying platform attempts within mobile, the concept of a platform has changed significantly since the 90s when it comes to Web 2.0. However I haven’t really see the platforms in mobile evolving along the same lines. When we talk about “software above the level of a single device” mobile should be right there at the top of the list. Instead the base software in mobile operates above the level of a single device if you’re a carrier, but is as locked down as ever (or worse than ever in some cases) if you’re anyone else. That just isn’t going to work. The future generations of mobile platforms have to be open source and based on open standards otherwise I think the environment as a whole ends up suffering.

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9 Responses to Mobile, Web 2.0, Hype, Reality, and Openness

  1. adrian cuthbert says:

    Clearly expecting mobile AJAX to somehow make existing web sites fundamentally more accessible on mobile devices is naive. But mobile AJAX does have the potential to alleviate some peculiarly mobile barriers. All the more reason to be disappointed by the current notion of mobile AJAX which, as you say, seems to do little more than connect Javascript and DHTML.

    Where is support for XMLHttpRequest? The ability to fetch minor page updates in the background could really benefit some mobile apps. Not only does it mean less data is being sent back and forth but also the phone has less work to do re-parsing and rendering an entire page.

    I’m not saying such a thing is easy, nor does it address the latency issues, but ultimately it would provide a better integration environment than having everybody resort to downloadable clients.

  2. miker says:

    Actually, the full version of Opera (at least the S60 full version, I haven’t tried others), has had XMLHttpRequest support for a while now:

    http://www.thisismobility.com/blog/?p=69

    It’s definitely interesting, but I’m not sure how useful it is. If you’re coming from the mobile end of things, you’re already probably doing some device adaptation and here’s another feature you can hook in. But I tend to think of mobile web in the context of web and not mobile, and in that sense someone who’s used to having some sort of async support available will find they have minimal support in a browser that most people don’t have on their phone yet. Just doesn’t get them any closer to what they’re looking for.

  3. Hi Mike – First , thanks for organizing such a great conference yesterday, Mobile 2.0 is one of these rare events where you get the real global movers and shakers together to discuss where the industry is going.
    On your comments about Mobile Ajax, I think that Mobile Ajax is actually quite underhyped as a technology platform. It offers great promise for the mobile industry to establish a standard for how we approach application development and bring good usability forward, moving away from the need of having to hardcode for so many different devices. Having been a user of Mobile Ajax for some time, I will say that ‘its still early days’ and we do often see the term misused as a marketing term. To me, its sorta-like where CSS or DHTML was in 2000 or so, fortunately with Moore’s law and other accelerators we will not have wait very long to see this making a real impact on the usability and distribution of mobile applications.

  4. miker says:

    Hey Martin, thanks for leaving the comment, great to see you at the event yesterday. One of the main questions I still have relates to “moving away from having to hardcode for many different devices” How does AJAX solve this? When using AJAX you’re still relying on HTML, Javascript, CSS, and quite frequently DHTML in order to get the application displayed. Unless ajax is inherently tied to a single browser platform it will still suffer from the same problems that exist currently (inconsistent or non-existant CSS styling, different tag sets, implementation quirks, etc) Does mobile AJAX include some kind of internal device adaptation?

    I agree totally with the distribution of mobile applications being in need of major updates. I would just rather see the base issues fixed before trying to push out new technology as well.

    What would move my pulse in terms of mobile ajax? The same mobile ajax application with exactly the same markup being displayed using two different browsers. Otherwise I’m going to look at the individual mobile ajax efforts the same way I looked at ActiveX with IE, a thinly veiled effort to subvert an otherwise open programming model in attempt to own the market.

  5. Mike, I think your pulse should start moving faster, currently we see Opera and Nokia (OSS browser) being at a level where they can render (at least some level of) Ajax the same way. Especially having Nokia jump on this bandwagon is important, from what i understand they will be shipping something like 60M E61 hand-sets this year. I dont see Openwave and Access being much behind, i estimate that by Q2 ’07 all of these browsers will be very much at the same level. The other thing that’s exciting here is this concept of ‘smart-phones for the masses’, clearly mobile applications on a device like the E61 make a lot more sense than on a Razr, so when you combine the rapid deployment of these, now cheaper, more smart-phone like devices (other examples are Moto-Q and T-Mobile Dash) with mobile ajax, you have a strong foundation for truly useful mobile applications.

  6. miker says:

    Excellent, having support for it in the Nokia OSS browser would be great. I have an E61 and I’ve been fooling around with the Nokia OSS browser and AJAX sites. Mostly just noting the spectacular ways in which it fails. I’ll keep looking for an update though.

  7. Michael Molin says:

    Hi Mike,

    I just wanted to show my project in relation to Mobile 2.0

    Cell Computer Project

    http://geocities.com/gene_technics

    Regards,

  8. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Hi Mike
    Great post. see my thoughts at http://opengardensblog.futuretext.com/archives/2006/11/mobile_ajax_mor_1.html

    Still work in progress!

    kind rgds
    Ajit

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