1. Are mobile apps here to stay?

    Posted December 17, 2009 in mobile  |  3 Comments so far

    A few weeks ago a guest speaker came to our office to talk about mobile apps. His company produced a lot of them, for pretty big brands. He knew his stuff: the team here was both impressed and engaged.

    But an exchange during the following Q&A session stuck in my mind later. One of our directors asked a question: is the mobile app destined to be a transitory phenomenon, something that will fade away as mobile browsers become capable of delivering the same functionality?

    The speaker was adamant that this was not the case and that mobile apps were here to stay. He felt that Google’s increasing preference for mobile browser apps over native apps was misguided and that Google were wrong on this one. Mobile browsers were so far from rivalling the functionality of native apps that it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

    I was tempted to counter this point by bringing up the iPhone’s support for HTML 5 and starting a detailed discussion about in-browser capabilities. But this wasn’t the main subject of the talk and I’m in no way an expert on HTML 5, so I decided to keep my mouth shut instead.

    In the weeks since the talk, however, I’ve often found myself turning this question over and over again in my head. And the more I think about it, the more I feel that mobile apps are basically doomed – or at least I hope they are.

    Don’t get me wrong – they play an important role. It’s good that so many people today see phones as devices for more than just calling or texting, and the iPhone and its suite of native apps is largely to thank for this. But in the longer run, the publication and distribution model they are based on has to go.

    The idea of tying software to a single hardware platform is anachronistic, uncompetitive and limits user choice. This is bad enough when you’re dealing with computers, but it’s even worse when the devices are as personal as mobile phones. People should be free to choose a different phone without needing to buy new versions of the software tools that have become integral to their lives.

    Aside from user choice, there’s a more practical reason why the native app model is unsustainable. Developers won’t want to keep maintaining multiple codebases for the apps they produce, especially when there’s the option of building an equally functional in-browser app which any standards-based client can run. And although Apple might hope to render this point irrelevant by establishing monopolistic domination of the smartphone market, relieving developers of the need to consider other platforms, current research indicates that they won’t succeed.

    The smartphone OS market will be more fragmented in 2012 than in 2009

    The smartphone OS market will be more fragmented in 2012 than in 2009

    A more fragmented smartphone OS market will increasingly compel developers to support separate codebases for Windows Mobile, RIM, Android, Symbian and the iPhone. But as mobile browsers become capable of delivering similar interactivity, serious developers will become inclined to start using the browser as the platform instead. This will be a good thing for users and the industry alike.

    If I’m correct and native apps do fade away over time, we may look back on the era of pointless mobile apps as just one among many strange blips in the history of technology. But despite some early rumblings from notable developers, native mobile apps will be with us for some time yet – and, in the medium term at least, they still have an important role to play in encouraging mainstream adoption of the mobile internet.

    Edit: This article was later reposted on Android and Me and attracted numerous comments. Click here to see the conversation on Android and Me

    Edit 2: Stephen Fulljames shared a couple of links related to this post. PhoneGap is a toolkit for developing mobile apps in HTML & JavaScript. And this post from front-end consultant Peter-Paul Koch provides some background to his work with Vodafone on mobile browser compatibility and W3C widgets.

  2. Skyfire – a browser for Windows Mobile

    Posted September 25, 2008 in mobile, software  |  No Comments so far

    Yep, I’m a Windows Mobile user—although I may not be one for too much longer. It looks like there’s going to be a long wait for Windows Mobile 7 (I’m on version 6) and the new HTC/Google Android device has piqued my interest. But for the time being I’m stuck in WinMo world.

    I was therefore glad to read that Skyfire, a Windows Mobile browser that’s been in private beta for several months, has now been released to the public. And although it’s still in beta, it’s pretty much complete.

    Skyfire aims to provide a “real” web experience on a mobile handset. Rather than viewing (at best) mobile versions of sites or (at worst) the mangled results of mobile devices trying to display bad HTML/CSS code, Skyfire seeks to render sites in the same way as your desktop/laptop computer might. And from what I’ve been able to tell so far, it does this pretty well.

    How does this work? Well, the rendering engine for Skyfire doesn’t actually reside on your mobile device itself – that would put way too much strain its CPU. Instead, your device only connects to one of Skyfire’s servers. That server then loads the web pages you request, renders them in full, and streams the rendered output down to your phone.

    The server, of course, doesn’t have the same CPU limitations as your phone, and is therefore able to fully render web pages containing Flash and video. Even bad HTML & CSS code doesn’t cause it problems. It’s quite an interesting experience, seeing Flash and video run so well on a phone.

    There is a downside, however. Server-side rendering takes a horrible strain on a phone’s battery life, and my HTC TyTN II is already struggling to last a whole day without charge. Also, if you’re not on an unlimited data plan, this could be a more expensive way to browse the web than simply using pocket IE.

    So, although I’m pretty impressed by Skyfire, I think I’ll be restricting my use of it to when I’m on a wireless LAN and have my phone on charge.

  3. RocketDock – Close but no cigar

    Posted August 28, 2008 in software  |  No Comments so far

    RocketDock is a nice idea. Billed as a “peace offering” from the Mac community to Windows users, it’s a recreation of the OS X dock – the customisable ribbon of icons allowing quick access to files, folders, applications and URLs.

    Rocketdock screenshot

    I’ve just installed it on my Windows XP machine and for the first five minutes or so I found myself warming to it. You might think it’s a needless duplication of the Quick Launch section of the Windows taskbar, but it’s not. There’s a lot of scope for customisation of icons and actions, and the ability to position it anywhere you’d like on the screen is a useful one.

    However, once I’d removed most of the default icons and added several of my own, I encountered some strange behaviours. Dragging shortcuts to the dock, which had earlier on resulted in their appearing as icons, no longer worked. However, after a failed drag, a blank space appeared on the ribbon which did nothing and made the interface harder to use.

    Mucking about with RocketDock’s settings, removing some more icons and even restarting the application didn’t help matters. It seems to have decided that the set of icons in there is definitive, and is no longer willing to countenance even the idea of change. Bit of a prima donna if you ask me. Fail!