Insight 13

This article was written by David Wood and published on the Symbian corporate website in September 2006

Insight 13: Beyond the browser

There’s a massive confluence in progress, busily reshaping the worlds of networked intelligence and communications. This confluence brings together and transforms two of the most important and energetic trends of recent times.

The first of these trends is the increasing adoption of smartphones. More and more people are carrying with them mobile phones which are packed full of processing power and rich features. The second trend is Web 2.0. Individually, these two trends are very much underway. Combined, and mutually enhanced, these trends are poised to open huge new business opportunities.

The phrase “Web 2.0” means different things to different people. The main idea is to contrast the key characteristics of present-day successful websites and web services with those that were in their prime several years back (prior to the crash of the “dotcom” bubble circa 2001). In this analysis:

  • Web 1.0 was a “mainly read-only” web, whereas Web 2.0 is read-write
  • Web 1.0 was like a library, whereas Web 2.0 is more like a conversation
  • In Web 2.0, the network itself has intelligence, rather than just being a bit-pipe for pre-cooked information
  • The key attribute of Web 1.0 was the distribution of information from a few privileged sites, through the network, to an ever-growing number of consumers of that information; in contrast, Web 2.0 lowers the barrier to the publication of user-generated content
  • Not only does Web 2.0 make it easier for users to author and share material; it also makes it easier for developers to rapidly evolve new services, by adopting lighter weight programming models and collaborative testing processes

It’s easy to quibble with parts of this analysis. The original designers of the Internet and the World Wide Web can point out, with justification, that:

  • It was their intention, all along, for the web to host collaboration and user-driven innovation
  • Some of the earliest successes of the Internet (such as newsgroup discussion forums) involved huge amounts of animated conversation
  • The technologies behind Web 2.0 sites have a lengthy heritage

However, everyone can agree that the scale of the web keeps expanding, and that as a side-effect of this scale, innovation regularly builds on top of innovation. Worldwide, there are probably around one billion people who regularly hook into the emerging system. Smart developers stand on the shoulders of the smart developers of the previous programming season. The result is that the original ideals of web collaboration and collective intelligence are reaching out to ever larger numbers of people.

For example: according to recent figures from Nielsen/NetRatings, five out of the ten fastest growing online brands in the UK (including four out of the top five) are Web 2.0 sites:

  • YouTube, a site for posting and viewing videos
  • Flickr, for posting and viewing pictures
  • MySpace, for social networking
  • Photobucket, another site for posting and viewing pictures
  • Bebo, another social networking site

Also note the dramatic growth of the so-called blogosphere (where people publish online diaries of their thoughts and musings), which has been doubling in size roughly every 5-6 months over the last three years. In all of the Web 2.0 sites mentioned, user ratings and reputation systems play a central role: the choice of what gets public attention is essentially made by the participants themselves, rather than by individual moderators or the owners of the sites. The outcome of all this can be extraordinary – as noted by writers as diverse as the following two:

  • Yochai Benkler, author of “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom”
  • Glenn Reynolds (also known as “Instapundit”), author of “An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths”

With the online networked universe gaining all the time in significance, it’s no surprise that individuals and companies are seeking ways to make it ever-easier for users to connect into that universe. Three factors in particular drive an increase in mobile access to this universe:

  1. An intense competition within the Web 2.0 industry to reach users via new channels, gaining both incremental eyeball time and incremental revenues
  2. The strong and growing smartphone market size, which is rapidly approaching 100 million users, and which may reach one billion around the end of this decade
  3. Active, hungry, intelligent smartphone ecosystem players, eager to redeploy the skills they have honed while the first 100+ smartphone models came to market

Mobile access to Web 2.0 has already been making leaps and bounds forwards:

  • Faster wireless networks eliminate the tedium of waiting for pages to load
  • Improved display technologies allow ever greater amounts of information to be viewed on mobile screens
  • Enhanced user interfaces, keyboards, handwriting recognition systems, and so forth, take away the pain of entering data
  • Flat rate charging systems, being introduced by some networks and under consideration by others, remove the fear of unexpectedly large phone bills incurred by data usage
  • Intelligent onboard software systems deal on the fly with formatting and layout of web pages that were designed for viewing on large desktop PCs rather than mobile smartphones

As with the improvements on the web itself, these improvements with mobile web access build step-by-step, with one season’s innovations laying the groundwork for yet further innovation in the next season. There’s no shortage of clever entrepreneurs and smart programmers willing to step up to the challenge.

However, what we’ve seen so far provides only a faint indication of what’s still to come. The convergence of Web 2.0 ingenuity and technology with that of the smartphone industry has hardly begun. There are five major keys to unlocking the full opportunity here:

  1. A continuing focus on efficiency and high performance from smartphones, avoiding unnecessary computation or communications cycles, thereby ensuring that smartphones remain light and unconsciously portable, without need of heavy batteries or air-conditioning fans
  2. An equal focus on providing user-friendly but utterly reliable security mechanisms, so that users need have nothing to fear from their mobile interactions with Web 2.0
  3. A continuing focus on improved user experience, recognising the diverse individuality of different users, and avoiding any “one size fits all” mentality
  4. An equal focus on improved developer experience, intelligently applying the Web 2.0 principle of “lighter weight programming models” (including modern scripting languages) within the inevitably constrained space of mobile devices
  5. Appreciation of the unique positive aspects of smartphones (which shouldn’t be viewed simply as diminished and impoverished versions of PCs)

Unlike PCs, smartphones are always at hand, ready to record an idea or inspiration that strikes a user, without the need to locate the PC and then wait for it to boot up or come out of suspension. Smartphones also tend to incorporate cameras (ideal for taking photos to embellish your blog) and can “tag” pictures and other data with keywords, context, and time-and-date information. Location-based services will take this a step further. Here are some of the likely outcomes:

  • An increasing amount of data on photo-sharing sites like Flickr will be originated on smartphones and seamlessly uploaded using services such as ShoZu
  • The phenomenon of “moblogging” (mobile blogging) will become just as significant as blogging itself
  • Companies such as Peerbox will enable mobile peer-to-peer music distribution systems
  • Social networking will acquire increasingly mobile aspects – see the likes of Dodgeball, MocoSpace, and Zedge
  • Smartphones will further reflect their user’s personality, containing unique collections of task-focused applications and widgets, such as the recently launched Widsets.
  • Advertising – which indirectly funds so much of the material on Web 2.0 sites – will become increasingly present on mobile phones. (Of course, users will vote with their feet against any advertising that they find to be inappropriate or intrusive.)

If these topics interest you, let me draw your attention to the “Social Media” seminar track (tagged as “share more, experience more”) at the Symbian Smartphone Show. Among other speakers and panellists, you’ll hear from:

  • Opera – the creator of arguably the world’s most successful mobile web browser
  • Lampdesk – tools and Software Development Kits for rapid mobile Web 2.0 applications
  • Cognima – the creators of ShoZu
  • Ajit Jaokar – co-author of the freshly published book “Mobile Web 2.0: The Innovator’s Guide to Developing and Marketing Next Generation Wireless/Mobile Applications”.

I’ll end by making three additional predictions.

First, attempts to control or centralise web mobile access will fail. Users will rebel against so-called “closed garden” schemes that attempt to define in advance a limited portion of Web 2.0 which is “approved” viewing on smartphones. Openness will win.

Second, many of the seemingly most sophisticated Web 2.0 websites will fail on smartphones – until such time as principles of efficiency, high performance, and simplicity of user experience are reinstated in the designs of these sites. Designs that focus on optimising the apparent user interface on state-of-the-art PCs are unlikely to produce compelling results on smartphones (even the best of breed). However, the overall intelligence of the smartphone ecosystem will see to it that enough of these websites evolve themselves to be smartphone-friendly. The ones that don’t evolve will tend to become extinct, as part of the normal casualties of marketplace rough-and-tumble.

Third, although the web browser itself has been the visible vehicle for the bulk of the progress of both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, it will start to move into the background for many of the most exciting mobile implementations of web services. The browser is just one possible rendering engine for data that has been fetched from remote web servers. Because it’s a general purpose rendering engine, it inevitably makes compromises. The effects of these compromises are starker on the smaller screens of smartphones. That’s why, for sufficiently important mobile applications, you can expect to see specific non-browser interfaces. One of the best selling mobile applications, WorldMate from MobiMate, already embodies this principle. WorldMate is a mash-up of remotely-fetched information such as weather, currency rates, and the status of flights. The latest release of the Crossfire tool by AppForge makes it particularly easy to create similar applications, written in either Visual Basic or C#. It’s one of very many factors that are taking the mobile experience beyond the basic browser, to truly engage and enthuse end users.

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