Trying to identifying a suitable platform for developing applications in the handset market involves tracking a constantly moving target. When Java made its transition from the desktop over to mobile, we were told to expect the same write-once-run-anywhere experience.
When that didn't quite work out, the industry climbed into bed with the "˜operating system', extolling the application development wonders of systems like Symbian, Windows Mobile and Palm OS. But it wasn't long before Linux appeared on the scene and a new love affair with open source environments begun. This relationship blossomed until the realisation that open source was synonymous with fragmentation.
Now, the industry has started cautiously flirting again with a new breed of application execution environments like Java MIDP3.0 and Adobe's Flash. When in comes to application platforms, the mobile industry clearly very confused"&brkbar;.and downright promiscuous.
There are two fundamental reasons why none of these solutions has so far become cemented into the industry - 1) critical mass and 2) consistency. Java has achieved a level of critical mass, but the inconsistency of its implementation has damaged interoperability. On the other hand, Windows Mobile has a high degree of consistency across devices, but it is far from achieving critical mass.
However, there is a platform that is widely deployed on mobile phones with a level of consistency which ensures good interoperability of applications, and is a platform which some in the industry now see as a serious contender for the position of cross-device application environment. It is the mobile browser. At Informa's Handset World conference in Berlin last week, I was a little surprised at the number of industry leaders championing the browser as a credible application platform.
While the browser is more typically associated with simply rendering web (or WAP) pages, the increasing complexity of websites and the rise of Web2.0 means that many of these sites function as applications in their own right. Is Facebook a website or an application on the web‾ Many would say the latter.
And just because a browser normally connects to a remote server for each new page, instead, the "˜application' pages can be stored locally on the device, connecting to the network only when and if remote data is required.
For an operator looking to launch a new application to every handset in its portfolio without incurring large deployment costs, the browser is the way to go. Creating a new user interface can be achieved in minutes and mapping applications to a new browser can be done in a matter of days. Importantly, the browser allows investment made in coding applications for the desktop to be reused for mobile.
With support for xHTML, CSS and Ajax, as well as access to certain handset APIs, and embedded support for visual rendering solutions like Flash and SVG, a browser can offer an application experience similar to applications running natively (or interpreted) on the device. However, while browser capability is improving, particularly with the likes of WebKit, NetFront and Opera, none currently support this full range of features.
Also on the downside, poorly designed browser applications can suffer from long click-distances and pages can take as long as five seconds to render - not ideal if the device has a super-fast HSDPA connection.
With a large installed base of devices supporting a range of different browser types and versions, application development is often restricted to the capability of the lowest-featured browser. Furthermore, according to Christian Plamenig, Head of Portal & UI at Hutchison 3G, the ongoing release of updates and new browser versions creates the need for a constant evaluation exercise.
It does seem odd that, with a raft of innovative and powerful application platforms available, an old-school technology like the browser is being seriously considered as the solution to bring cross-device application development to the mobile phone.
Having seen so many technologies try and fail to win this critical position, it'll take a person braver than myself to confidently predict that browser will indeed eventually triumph. However, with the rise of WebKit, support for Ajax and an evolution into widgets (which Opera has already started), the browser will certainly remain a contender for some time to come.