Fragmentation is the enemy of innovation


Marek Pawlowski, PMNThis article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX and Editorial Director at PMN, is intended to provoke and inspire discussion around MEX Manifesto #3, entitled ‘Fragmentation is the enemy of innovation‘ ahead of the MEX conference in London next month (27th – 28th May).

MEX brings together participants from across the value chain, including operators, handset manufacturers, network equipment suppliers, OS vendors, developers and digital media brands. The founding principle of the conference was to have everyone required to make progress on user experience issues sitting around the same table – it is an event where we actually make change happen through collaboration. I hope you’ll join us by registering for the conference.

Talk to any mobile developer and you hear the same story: fragmentation is their biggest headache. They are beset by complexity on all sides. On the one hand, they face the challenge of producing a hundred SKUs to ensure one application works across all those different handset specifications. At the same time, they must forge separate commercial agreements to get ‘on deck’ with all the operators in a particular country.

Developers are pouring man hours into these administrative issues when they could be creating new innovations to drive the market for mobile services. They are also finding it prohibitively expensive to enter new markets, or even getting their company launched in the first place. The one-man-band creative designing and developing an application in his home office is an endangered species.

It’s no wonder developers have little time to focus on user experience issues when it can take months to get an application certified on a particular operating system or network.

Of course, the real losers in this process are the end customers. When the average mobile customer sees an advertisement for a mobile service or watches a friend demo a cool new application, they have no certaintity they will be able to enjoy the same experience on their own handset. Any number of technical hurdles could prevent them from accessing the service themselves – perhaps they don’t have the correct Flash runtime installed, maybe the handset runs a non-standard version of Java or perhaps their operator has locked them out of installing third party applications altogether?

For an industry pinning its long-term hopes on the growth of mobile data services, it sometimes seems like we couldn’t be doing more to shoot ourselves in the foot.

However, there are signs of change.

Adobe today announced it’s Open Screen project, partnering with a consortium of chipset manufacturers, handset vendors, network operators and software companies to bring Flash and AIR support to a much wider range of devices. This includes mobile handsets, desktop PCs and other appliances, raising the possibility that developers may one day be able to use the same tools to create applications across all of the devices which comprise the average consumer’s digital universe.

Open Screen supporters at launch are: ARM, Chunghwa Telecom, Cisco, Intel, LG, Marvell, Motorola, Nokia, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Verizon Wireless.

Flash was widely heralded as a breakthrough innovation when it was first introduced to the mobile business several years ago, but in many ways has failed to live up to expectations.

The ability to use vector-based graphics to scale application UIs across a wide range of different screen formats without manual re-coding was seen as a vital development. The prospect of a standardised runtime environment without the fragmentation issues of Java was also highly attractive.

Despite claiming to have shipped some 500m licenses for the mobile version of Flash, the actual results have been relatively unimpressive. Japanese operators have made extensive use of the technology. Samsung and LG also employ Flash to underpin several of their handset UIs. Nokia is incorporating it into its Series 40 and Series 60 handsets too, but Flash continues to play a very small role in forming the overall user experience for customers around the world.

The Open Screen project seeks to address some of the factors which have limited its success. Adobe will drop the license fee it has previously charged manufacturers for incorporating the mobile Flash client. It will also work towards creating an integrated version of the Flash player and AIR platform, enabling developers to use the same tools to create applications across numerous platforms.

Adobe will publish the previously unavailable specifications for FlashCast and the AMF protocol, making it easier for developers to take advantage of over-the-air (OTA) update features. This will include allowing the Adobe runtime itself to be updated OTA, just like Flash player on the desktop.

The result should be expanded deployment of Flash and AIR, reduced cost to the eco-system and a better development environment. For consumers, this will translate into the ability to view existing, web-based Flash content on their mobile handsets, a wider range of interactive third party applications and more certaintity that the services they see demoed in magazines and TV will actually work on their mobile.

“Users clearly want full functionality, the same look and feel, and a similar instantaneous user experience as they have on their PCs,? commented Dr. Sehat Sutardja, president and chief executive officer at chipset manufacturer Marvell. “We are very excited Adobe is making this happen through the Open Screen Project by unifying the software requirements across all platforms. Marvell is contributing to the success of this effort by providing PC class computing horsepower through our advanced application processor technology that is used in many of our mobile and consumer devices.?

Rikko Sakaguchi, Head of Portfolio and Propositions, at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications, said: “A broad range of our handsets are Flash-enabled based on our belief that an engaging and integrated mobile application and Web experience is essential to our users. Adobe’s Open Screen Project will help to further expand the use of Flash technology across the full family of Sony Ericsson mobile devices to energise communication. Flash technology and Adobe AIR are natural fits to Sony Ericsson’s strategy of building on the best of the Open Web Standards and will help provide new mobile experiences to millions of users around the world.?

Interestingly, Sony Ericsson also made a separate announcement about Flash yesterday. It is working with Adobe on something called Project Capuchin. This will see Sony Ericsson handsets supporting a hybrid Java ME/Flash platform, essentially allowing developers to wrap Flash elements within a Java application download.

While this may deliver some benefits to developers who want to incorporate enhanced UIs in their mobile Java applets, it is also another sign of the fragmentation which afflicts the industry.

Simon Judge, a freelance mobile developer and expert on mobile development environments, explains: “At first sight this seems a great bridging technology for developers. The standard JAVA ME UI isn’t that graphically rich. Consequently, most mainstream applications such as mobile Gmail have created their own UI on top of the JAVA ME canvas. This is non-trival for most developers to implement for themselves, so using Flash Lite is one solution to this
problem.”

However, Simon – who also co-authored our last three MEX conference reports – concludes: “The problem is it’s currently a ‘Sony Ericsson only’ technology, which means that your application will only work on their phones. This will make Project Capuchin much less attractive to developers. Handset manufacturers need to start co-operating on new cross platform technologies rather than locking developers into what are effectively proprietary technologies.”

Many developers seek to avoid these headaches altogether by focusing their efforts on less advanced platforms, like XHTML mobile web-sites or even basic SMS alerts. However, sometimes even these ‘lowest common denominator’ options are fraught with problems.

Vodafone UK recently found itself at the centre of a storm of developer protests after it introduced Novarra’s web gateway to its network. The technology was designed to dynamically re-purpose desktop-style web-sites into a format suitable for mobile devices, thereby enhancing the user experience. However, one of the ‘features’ of the gateway was hiding the invisible ‘user agent’ string which helps third party developers to identify the type of device accessing their mobile web services.

Hundreds of developers who’d optimised their services to provide a tailored experience for different devices suddenly found their applications broken overnight. Customers used to seeing a perfectly formated page in their mobile browser were now presented with a mess of automatically re-purposed content which bore no resemblence to the creators original design.

Developer mailing lists erupted in protest and now an uneasy dialogue has been established with operators and transcoding software vendors to try to prevent such issues occuring in the future.

We’ll be addressing the issue of fragmentation and its limiting effect on innovation at the MEX conference in London on 27th – 28th May. It is one of our 10 Manifesto issues for 2008.

MEX brings together participants from across the value chain, including operators, handset manufacturers, network equipment suppliers, OS vendors, developers and digital media brands. The founding principle of the conference was to have everyone required to make progress on user experience issues sitting around the same table – it is an event where we actually make change happen through collaboration.

Carl Taylor, Director of Applications, Services & Global Technology Strategy at Hutchison Whampoa Europe (parent company of the Three networks), will deliver a keynote presentation in response to this Manifesto issue. His presentation will inspire a series of breakout groups where 100 of the brightest minds in the mobile business work together to examine the issue from a number of different angles. We’ll then bring together a conference-wide debate to create a collaborative response to the Manifesto statement. You can read the full session description here.

I hope you’ll join us for the conference and contribute your views. We have a small number of delegate places remaining at MEX 2008 (all of our previous events sold out in advance), so please register today if you’d like to take part at http://www.pmn.co.uk/mex/register08.shtml. Places are priced at GBP 1499 (+ VAT @ 17.5% if applicable).


3 Comments

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  1. 2
    Peter Cranstone

    One solution is to simply improve the browser via plug-ins. HTTP is not fragmented and works across any connected device. The browser interfaces with HTTP so it should be the common denominator.

    Also it has a reasonably consistent UI so the customer doesn’t have to undergo a huge behavioral change to use it.

    What comes next is Mobile SaaS – start building software as a service that can be delivered to a mobile browser – then your fragmentation problems greatly disappear.

    Cheers,

    Peter
    5o9 Inc.

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