Progress in the mobile applications layer

One of the fundamental principles of how we approach our advisory work at PMN is to start with understanding what users really want and work towards a solution which delights consumers. At the same time, we must also reflect the commercial realities of the industry’s competitive environment. There are some interesting things happening in the mobile application layer space at the moment which underline the importance of this approach.

Let’s start with the consumer need. At the most basic level, users want access to content and applications which match their interests. These services need to be easily discoverable, available across a wide range of handsets and be either free of charge or very low cost.

At present the mobile applications market is characterised by an imbalance towards particular categories – such as gaming, poor discovery mechanisms, fragmentation, incompatibility and relatively high cost to the customer.

There are reasons for this. There is a surplus of games because they are one of the few applications operators are willing to support with major marketing campaigns. This side-steps the problems with discovery mechanisms, because the operator gives this category prominence on the portal. Fragmentation occurs because manufacturers have realised the competitive potential of offering unique gaming capabilities in their handsets and therefore choose Java virtual machines with proprietary extensions. The resulting fragmentation increases the cost to the consumer, because developers have to invest additional resources in supporting their applications across a range of platforms.

The solution to this problem lies in providing a suitably open platform for mobile application development which works across the vast majority of devices. It is an obvious observation and something which has been promised by countless platform providers.

However, it seems progress is finally being made towards a workable solution. There have been several interesting announcements in the last couple of weeks which will all help: reports from the JavaOne conference on MIDP 3.0: “Sun, along with major manufacturers and developers, have all gotten together in a public setting – the ‘open source’ aspect of this endeavor – to determine and approve exactly what will be in this next version of mobile Java. Anyone can submit improvements or feature requests until the spec is locked down, and approved, which is expected to happen this fall. Once MIDP 3.0 is approved, all participating manufacturers have agreed to implement the spec on their phone without any changes.”

Sun has always been quite open about rolling new features into MIDP, but the key part of this agreement is the commitment from handset manufacturers to implement the platform ‘as is’, without the additional modifications that have caused fragmentation for developers in the past. Sun is conscious the ‘write once, run anywhere’ promise of Java has not lived up to expectations in the mobile industry and MIDP 3.0 will be a significant step towards getting this back on track. Unfortunately commercial handsets are unlikely to arrive for another 12 – 18 months.

In other news, Ikivo has announced the integration of its mobile SVG authoring tools with NetBeans, the leading Java IDE. SVG capabilities, which enable developers to use scalable graphics to automatically fit interfaces across a wide range of screen sizes, are being rolled into the mobile Java specification as part of JSR 226 – a Java Community Process specifying SVG as the standard for mobile graphics.

This will make it much easier for developers to create Java applications with scalable, rather than bitmapped interfaces. This solves one of the biggest fragmentation problems – redesigning interfaces for numerous different handset types. To get an idea of just how fragmented the market is, payment platform provider Bango reported yesterday that it tracked 1,266 different handset models accessing its system in the month of March 2006 alone.

Adobe, of course, has its own ideas about this area and is working with handset manufacturers to support both Flash and SVG through Macromedia’s FlashLite player (Adobe acquired Macromedia earlier this year). It has licensing agreements with many of the world’s major handset vendors, including Nokia and Samsung, while operator NTT DoCoMo has pioneered FlashLite as a mobile applications platform by requiring it as part of the i-Mode standard specification.

Finally, mobile browser provider Opera is working with development tools company Virtual Mechanics to support XHTML and SVG applications which work across any device – from desktops to mobile phones.

These moves are all part of the progress the industry needs to make if it is to start delighting consumers. A wide range of development tools, open standards, integration with existing web applications, broad hardware support – these are the conditions required to arrive at the overall goal of improving customer experience. In the mobile applications layer at least, things finally seem to be moving in the right direction.

This theme will be a key part of the MEX conference agenda on 31st May and 1st June. In particular, I’d refer you to the session on ‘Intra-device and multiple interface challenges‘, and encourage you to register to take part in the debate.

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