The mobile applications gold rush has begun

There's a huge market for good apps, says Tom Yager

Adobe, AOL, Google and Yahoo see smartphones as fertile ground for rich and hosted apps and services. Futurists' dreams of the wearable computer, constantly attached to its wearer and to the world, are realised. As foreseen, that technology has changed culture and, arguably, humanity. Professionals rely on smartphones and PDAs as more than aids to recall and communication.

In metropolitan areas where the reach of coverage and range of services are broadest, mobile technology outmodes itself. Texting? Bah. Now, the low bar is HTML-formatted email with Office attachments. Fifteen-second "Hi, mom!" video snapshots have lost their appeal. I watched two hour-long clips from Apple Developer Connection on my Nokia E61i during my recent flight to San Francisco (that was before I got my iPod Touch). Like everyone, I think, I've come to take such things for granted. When I do comparative reviews of devices, I don't rank them according to the presence of advanced capabilities like these, but how well they're implemented. When BlackBerry and Nokia started shipping movie transcoding software with their handsets, it was clear to me that a corner had been turned. A phone that can play a full-length movie won't have trouble with much else. Now that we're living the future predicted for us — where, through Bluetooth, our brains are attached to computers that keep us constantly connected to each other — one major question remains: Where are the apps and services that mobile platforms enable? In our hurry to get to the future, it seems we've overlooked the basics. Shouldn't our life-changing handsets be able to run programs? That's a rhetorical question. The problem is not one of device technology, which is abundant. We're not wanting for connectivity now that TCP/IP service goes wherever there is metro cellular voice coverage. The lack of relevant, directly user-facing mobile applications and services can be traced to two roadblocks: platforms and wireless operators. All modern mobile platforms, with the present exception of iPhone, support custom software development. All device APIs have the essentials such as file systems, multithreading, and access to the TCP/IP stack. The trouble is, each platform has a proprietary approach to interacting with users. One can argue that Java and Series 60 level the field, but the effort required to put up a passable UI using either of these is daunting enough to keep mobile app development a niche rather than a natural extension of common coding skills. The killer professional mobile app is out there somewhere, locked in the imagination of someone who dreamed a mobile dream, downloaded tools from Forum Nokia to try to realise that dream, and decided to go after a more attainable goal, like curing cancer. The solution to the GUI dilemma is well in hand: HTML. While quality varies, all platforms have competent and improving web browsers, which holds out the potential to use JavaScript, HTML and CSS for user interfaces rather than cumbersome and proprietary APIs for text, graphics, motion and input. Keep in mind as well that JavaScript has facilities for XML parsing, HTTP communication, and web services. JavaScript performance is laughable on some handsets, but native or Java code fronted by an HTML/CSS/JavaScript GUI would impress and get apps to market faster. Adobe had a shot at defining an even more appealing common ground with Flash, but it made a strategic decision that brings up the second roadblock to rich mobile apps. Adobe could have made a business of making sure that either the full Flash Player, or the embeddable content player called Flash Lite, runs on everything that moves, just as the desktop Flash Player does now. Flash Player drives sales of Adobe dev tools and back-end servers. Imagine extending that model to millions of devices, and allowing every Flash developer — and there are so many — to target phones. Instead of taking Flash to mobile developers and users, Adobe brought the best of Flash to wireless operators who will keep it under lock and key. Must-have features such as widgets and customisable home screens done up in Flash will exist on phones but only as created by wireless operators, who are likely to bill you for your maps and weather just as they charge for ring tones now. Even Apple saw the folly of putting developers at the bottom of the mobile food chain. I never expected Adobe to blaze a new trail in that regard. It's Adobe's loss; mobile professionals will get what they need, and they'll have a range of sources. Vendors with new initiatives targeting the mobile app gap include AOL, Google and Yahoo. BlackBerry is reworking its device software to take it in a less specialised direction, giving it a chance to join the rest of the handset population. For every vendor that doesn't get it, there are others who realise that every time you click to view or listen to a video or podcast, or wait for a GPS fix, or pull mail from your inbox, they have an opportunity to insert advertising. Web 2.0 sites with offline content browsers will let users fill a briefcase with documents and media for portable viewing, content that's downloaded in the background as you do other things with your phone. This futurist proclaims that one day, our wearable computers will work with us and for us in ways that divisions among platforms and sweetheart exclusive deals with wireless operators make difficult to imagine.

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Tags technologymobile application development

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