Poor broken mobile

Phones, er, in a bin.

So, even though I’m upbeat about the prospects for mobile in general, as others have commented mobile application development is a broken model. All of the platforms have gone the same way – J2ME, Symbian, etc. and I think we, as people who actually want to make mobile work for real people, you know, real people in a bar in the countryside, owe it to ourselves to do something.

At best, new applications are all but impossible to port to older platforms – at worst compatibility is completely broken so that old applications will not even run on newer OS version. Oh, and that’s before you even get to carrier signing.

This is symptomatic of a deeper problem in the mobile ecosystem:

  • Manufacturers want to sell handsets, so keep making them different.
  • Publishers think they want features, but actually want reach.
  • Users want a simple way to address a need, so use SMS.

So, we keep pushing for more technology and either willfully develop it in isolation to “outsmart” our competitors – essentially fragmenting an already loosely standardized market – or we blind ourselves with shiny new tech, only to piss off our users even more when it doesn’t work.

Let’s not cheat ourselves – SMS is great. There was latent demand to communicate asynchronously and it works on everyone’s phone. I’m not suggesting that we should be making all our services using SMS (command line hell) but just that it’s the simplicity and ubiquity that makes it work.

Let’s think about how it got started. Someone found it on their phone. They tried it and their friend actually got the message. They either figured out how to reply or their friend showed them. This process continued for 1bn users.

Fast forward – I find a cool service on mobile. I’m a bit of a nerd and try things out. It’s a cool Java app. I show my friend and he tries it. He has a Blackberry and it doesn’t work. The chain ends, he can’t use it, can’t evangelize, show his friend, and there are not 1bn users.

Even the lowly browser can’t solve this. What is the lowest common denominator? Is it WAP? WML (a deck, cards..)? Well no, first it doesn’t work on some new devices, second many parsers reject WML that other parsers like (and vice versa) and third I don’t want to develop for the lowest common denominator.

Remember that as a publisher (or at least a client of a mobile development agency) I like some of the things that apps can do – the often run faster, the UI is slicker and they can take advantage of handset services such as cameras.

But don’t worry say W3C, Nokia, Motorola, etc. – mobile AJAX is the answer. We’ll all implement web standards and then we can share. But this doesn’t take into account interaction patterns. Some phones I navigate in tabstops, some I have a pointer, some a press with a big fat finger.

Worse than that, each manufacturer is implementing their own extensions to JavaScript. It’s like J2ME only even less standardized.. Can I write a nice mobile AJAX app that runs on iPhone, the N95 and W890i?

Well, perhaps Google can solve the problem with Android. It’s open source so therefore all mobile phone manufacturer will ditch their existing OS and switch to that. If you think that’s implausible – then what about their “gentleman’s agreement” not to butcher the codebase and make carrier specific modifications?

We have to accept that devices are only going to get more fragmented. Manufacturers want to differentiate, consumers want more specific, more convenient functionality (sat-nav with a SIM..) and publishers are just going to have to deal with it.

There is latent demand for mobile applications. I want to find out if that guy/girl sent me a message on myspace, and carefully craft a reply – especially when I’m out (or at work, as most of these sites are blocked in the workplace). I want to check the train times, or find out who won the football. Just make it so that I can easily understand what it is, don’t make me jump through hoops to get it (because I won’t), and make it simple.



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