Friday, November 17, 2006

Move over PC - Here comes the handset

Rich Internet Applications (RIA)  are a hallmark of Web 2.0. RIA allow the creation of a desktop-like application experience in a web browser. Dion Hinchcliffe’s recent article on RIA application platforms was insightful in helping choose a development environment that will allow you to create compelling content.

In this article I want to present an important alternative aspect for developers to consider. This relates to trends that have been floating under the radar in the ongoing “What is Web 2.0” debate.

The Desktop is being marginalized

Web 2.0 is driving the movement of data from the desktop application to the web browser. Data is moving to the Internet and benefiting from the unexpected interactions and inferences of aggregated data. This is leading to the marginalization of the desktop. Already outshipped by laptops the PCs market is being cannibalized by servers and laptop devices. But there is another force at work - The cellphone. Nick Clifford from Symbian recently forecasted the demise of the PC in five years - replaced by the smartphone. I think this view is a little extreme but I do believe we are seeing the emergence of the smartphone as the leading influencer in Internet development.

Instrumenting our world via the cellphone

The concept of the Internet Singularity, which I discussed in an earlier blog here, sees the convergence of our physical and Internet worlds. The PC, whether desktop or laptop is limited in its ability to support this convergence. I believe that the convergence device of choice will be the humble cellphone. Consider this:
  • Wireless Network providers have invested billions in building out advanced cellular networks.
  • Handset manufacturers have been developing advanced handsets that can access the Internet over those networks.
  • Handsets are incorporating convergence-enabling features such as cameras and global positioning
The real development battle is emerging, not on the desktop, but on the handset. Microsoft has invested billions in development of the Windows Smartphone platform - with good reason.

To understand why developers need to consider the handset as the emergent device to support Web 2.0 look at the projections for shipments of PCs and handsets for the next few years.

Even if you adjust cell phone shipments down based on the shorter operating life of cell phones. They are still set to outstrip PC adoption within a few years. With this in mind cutting edge developers in the Web 2.0 world should also be considering the handset development platform in their plans. The potential for exponential viral growth and expansion of collective intelligence that comes from always connected communication are almost limitless. This is demonstrated by Dion Hinchcliffe’s diagram included in his recent Foo Camp post.

One of the emerging trends in Web 2.0 is the movement of applications from the client to the web. The more this continues the greater the influence of devices that allow users to stay constantly connected. I believe this is one reason behind the rise in the popularity of the laptop over the PC desktop. As smartphones become more popular they will become the connectivity device of choice for all but heavy duty processing tasks such as program development, graphic design and complex word processing. Smartphones will drive an explosive growth in the number of network connections and this in turn will give greater potential for exponential network effects to come in to play.

Creating compelling mobile applications

The primary challenge in developing for handset deployment is the limit on user interface capability and the lack of a pre-dominant target platform.

On the development front there are four popular target environments in the cellphone market:

  • BREW
  • Microsoft .Net Compact
  • Symbian
  • Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition (J2ME) Mobile Information Device Profile 2.0 (MIDP 2.0)

BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless)

Originally developed by Qualcomm for CDMA and WCDMA cell phones. It has evolved to support all major cellular air interfaces such as GSM/GPRS and UMTS. The biggest wireless provider in the US to use this technology is Verizon Wireless. All developed applications require TRUE BREW certification which can be expensive to undertake. Certification give no guaranttee of adoption by wireless carriers. This situation is a deterrent to the incremental, experimental and evolutionary process that is typical of a Web 2.0 style application.

Microsoft .Net Compact

An extension of Microsoft's .Net framework oriented to the Microsoft PocketPC/WindowsCE/Smartphone platform. While closely aligned with the desktop and server oriented development environments for ease of development, the target applications are limited to running on Windows Smartphones.


Symbian is an Operating System for mobile phones. The platform is owned by a group of handset manufacturers (Nokia, Panasonic, Siemens AG and Sony Ericsson). It is used extensively in European GSM phones. Nokia owns around 48% of Symbian. Symbian is dominant in the smartphone market with around two thirds of smartphones shipping with a Symbian core. Symbian has a steep learning curve but provides access to more phone functionality than  other platforms. 

Java 2 Platform (J2ME)

Java 2 Micro Edition is a derivative of the Java environment. Micro Edition was developed to target mobile and embedded devices. The advantage of the platform is the familiarity of the Java environment and the ability to develop using standard Java tools such as Eclipse or NetBeans. The downside is that implementation variances across handsets have placed this as a "Lowest common denominator" environment. The Java “Sandbox” approach also limits the interaction that an application can have with the host handset. On the plus side, there are hundreds of phones that support J2ME applications including the Symbian platform.

Which target to choose?

In a Web 2.0 context  development  choices would tend  to favor J2ME and .Net Compact frameworks. The combination of these two platforms covers the largest potential base of handsets. If more extensive interaction is required with the handset then direct Symbian development  may be preferred over  and  above J2ME.

One development we are seeing is the accelerating adoption of Linux in cellphones. Motorola, NEC, Panasonic and Samsung have joined with NTT and Vodafone have formed the Linux Mobile Foundation. Motorola has already shipped over 5 million linux-based handsets. We are also seeing the takeup of linux by second tier manufacturers in Asia. These trends point to the growing use of Java to deliver applications since the mobile web browser market is still fragmented.

The Shifting Balance of Influence

What is clear is that with approximately 75 million or 70% of US households connected to the Web, but over 190 million US wireless subscribers the achievement of convergence - The Internet Singularity - is more likely to occur using the device that is our constant companion than it is with the PC. The constant access to an Internet connected device only serves to amplify the network effects of data collection and correlation. This impact is magnified when Geo-tagging is used to further enrich collected data. Experiments are already underway using the wireless Short Message Service (SMS) to instrument advertising and engage the customer. check out what SMS Feedback is doing in Australia to gather customer feedback in a geographic context.

September saw the New, New Internet conference take place in Tysons Corner, Virginia. I, along with 400 other attendees were there to learn about what Web 2.0 means for business. The Technology Showcase at the event included an Alexandria, VA company HookMobile. They have a fascinating mobile application that uses Multimedia messaging to create virally grown communities for marketers. Think digital baseball cards that can be collected and swapped via your cellphone and you start to scratch the surface of what HookMobile is about. Definitely an interesting company to watch as they prepare to launch their service.

Another Web 2.0 company that is demonstrating the potential of tapping the cellphone market is Pinger. Pinger provides instant voice messaging from your cellphone. Their service allows you to send a voice message to a distribution list of contacts. As a baseball parent I can see gameday applications to speed up the team telephone tree. The application has great viral potential. As with HookMobile, Pinger does not require any software to be downloaded to your phone. This eliminates one of the biggest barriers to adoption given the wide variety of handsets in use.

What are your thoughts? Is the handset going to eclipse the PC as the convergence device of choice for most users? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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