Apple has announced the iPhone will support 3rd party development through an integrated version of the Safari 3 web browser, enabling programmers to write applications based on web standards like HTML and AJAX. Although Apple’s official stance at the earlier launch event was that the device would be a closed environment, I don’t think I was alone in suspecting that any device with a fully-featured web browser would eventually be opened to allow access to new services.
According to the information Apple released to developers attending its WWDC event, the iPhone browser will enable applications to run in a ‘sandbox’ environment, through which they can interface with the integrated applications to access functions like phone calls, email messaging, mapping, contacts and calendar. In practice, this means browser-based applications will be able to offer features like click-to-call, storing event reminders in the local calendar or showing a location on the integrated map.
Developer reaction to this announcement has divided into two camps. On the one hand, some are hugely dissappointed Apple is not providing a public SDK for genuine native application development; on the other, there are those who are delighted Apple has chosen such an open development path and are excited by the possibility of being able to go direct to consumers without the delivery channel issues which continue to impair developers on most mobile platforms.
Before I talk about the details of how sofwtare development is likely to manifest itself on the iPhone, there are some other announcements we need to look at to provide the full context.
Apple is using the same Safari 3 codebase for both the iPhone and the latest version of its Mac OS browser. It has also recently announced a major push to increase adoption of Safari by releasing a version for Windows, again using the 3rd edition code. In doing so, Apple has the potential to create a web-based development platform spanning the desktop and mobile environments.
The Apple announcements have been widely publicised. Indeed, it seems there is nothing but news of Apple and the iPhone at the moment. However, I am very surprised how little coverage there has been of the other company which uses the Safari codebase for its mobile browser: Nokia.
Safari is at the heart of Nokia’s Series 60 browser platform and is widely recognised as one of the best native mobile web browsing applications. It is installed as standard on almost all Series 60 handsets released in the last 18 months. The relationship with Apple dates back to a July 2005 agreement, when the companies announced they would use the same open source codebase (KHTML and KJS from KDE’s ‘Konqueror’ project) and share expertise.
At the time, Nokia’s CTO Pertti Korhonen, said: “Open source development also enables close cooperation with the industry’s best innovators, such as Apple. Both Apple and Nokia share a commitment to Internet standards and the use of a common code. The unified and compatible browser base will offer a very compelling choice for Web content developers.”
So what does this mean? In short, there is a strong possibility that applications built for the iPhone will run on Nokia Series 60 devices with relatively little re-coding. Obviously code which references proprietary hooks into each device platform will not work across both applications, but the underneath this layer there should be good compatibility. The applications will also run on Windows and Mac desktops with the Safari browser.
The final pieces of this jigsaw are supplied by Google and Adobe, who are working together on an open source project – Google Gears – to enable browser-based applications to function off-line. Adobe is planning to incorporate this capability into Apollo, the next generation of its Flash platform which runs across desktop and mobile devices.
This is an interesting capability for desktop computers: web-based email that works without needing to be connected to the web, for instance. However, it is more than just interesting in a mobile context – it is a way of solving one of the key issues which has constrained web-style application development for phones, i.e. what happens when the device loses the network connection.
For Google, it represents a way of mobilising its popular applications – Mail, Calendar, Documents, Maps and so on – using the same methodology it employs in the desktop environment. More importantly, it frees the likes of Google from having to jump through hoops with network operators and handset manufacturers: they can deploy direct to users and host, support and monetise the service themselves.
If we start to plot all of these factors on a map of industry strategy, an interesting picture emerges. There is Apple with unprecedented hype around its iPhone launch and a vested interest in building a web-based media platform spanning desktop, living room and mobile. Then there is Nokia, the world’s largest handset manufacturer, which has publicly stated its commitment to becoming an ‘internet company’ and is planning a 2008 re-organisation which will see its devices, software and services businesses merged into a single business unit. Coming in from the left field, you have Google and Adobe actively seeking to disenfranchise Microsoft from its dominance of the desktop by making the web the software platform of choice. And finally, there is an army of developers constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with web-based applications.
At our recent MEX conference in London (Buy MEX 2007 report), one of our key manifesto statements read: “Tearing down the walled garden will enhance the mobile content experience and release value for the industry. The objective should be a free market for content and applications, based on open standards and accessible to all. We think the current fragmentation of formats and channels to market is holding back growth.”
These announcements and the trends they represent offer a direct response to this manifesto point. A successful iPhone, a continuing collaboration between Nokia and Apple on browser technology and the introduction of a mobile engine for off-line web applications could provide a ‘dream’ platform for developers. In this environment, software companies would be able to launch mobile applications in the same way they do on the web today: the distribution, support and fragmentation barriers would be a thing of the past.
However, the practical reality is often rather different to the vision. There is no formal initiative behind this and the enormous inertia within the mobile market could slow or halt its progress altogether. There is also the very real possibility that Nokia will see Apple’s strategy as a threat and step back from its commitment to the Safari-based browser in Series 60. Indeed, it is already starting to focus heavily on its WidSet’s technology as an application delivery method and may choose to push this as its main web-based development platform.
Perhaps most serious off all, there are the current usability limitations of web-based applications on mobile devices. Can this style of development deliver a compelling experience for mobile customers?
Neither does the vision yet encompass crucial elements like a discovery engine or payments platform, although I suspect there are numerous existing players who could scale up to providing this.
If I were an operator still stuck on building on-device portals to sell ringtones and Java apps or a Microsoft imagining the Windows franchise was going to survive indefinitely across desktop and mobile, I’d be reaching for the phone and calling in some strategy consultants. The web is fundamentally about connecting people and it is destined for mobility: the old methods of delivering and developing software will be swept away by this.