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Rise of Apple iPhone WebKit Advances Mobile Web's Role

HTML 5, Android, WebKit and advances in scripting and open source tools are allowing developers to target mobile devices better

Bringing enterprise applications effectively out to mobile devices has required some harsh trade-offs for developers. To gain access to devices, you lose functionality and portability, for example.

But thanks to the sizable impact that the Apple iPhone and its WebKit browser have had in the market -- and the lure of new business opportunities around mobile application stores -- the mobile Web has suddenly become more attractive and attainable for mainstream developers.

Such technologies as HTML 5, Android, WebKit and advances in scripting and open source tools are allowing developers to target mobile devices better than ever.

To learn more about how the development field for mobile Web applications is shaping up and how targeting the modern mobile Web browser may be removing some of the harshness from the trade-offs of the past, I recently assembled a panel of development experts.

Join me and Stephen O'Grady, founder and analyst at RedMonk; Wayne Parrott, vice president for product development at Genuitec, and David Beers, a senior wireless developer at MapQuest as we unpack the mobile Web.

Here are some excerpts:

O'Grady: For the first time, users have a real Web experience, as opposed to a stripped-down, bare-bones site in terms of what they can experience via the mobile Web. We need to pair the environmental and contextual factors with the advances that we've seen in the devices themselves. They've all come together to give us a rich and deep experience that will allow us to do things that we haven't been able to do before with the devices.

... When you're an enterprise vendor or a consumer vendor looking to target a volume audience, the fact is that there are a lot more mobile devices than there are desktops and laptops. There are mobile devices all over the planet. ... A lot of folks who might have traveled in the past and had applications like Siebel built into their laptops are now very often using those in a handheld or, in some cases, a netbook. So, economics, in terms of the application price and the volume audience that can be targeted is a big factor.

Gardner: How does an organization like MapQuest handle this whole issue of so many choices on that endpoint?

Beers: It's both a problem and an opportunity. From a developer's standpoint, and I am a developer, it's obviously difficult, because the amount of energy that you put in is divided across all of these different platforms. You have to make difficult decisions about developing the features you want ... and perhaps limiting the [device] targets that you're able to reach.

... On the positive side, fragmentation is a pejorative term that we use for differentiation. It's painful for developers, but we can't pretend that it's all a bad thing, because it's really driven by rapid innovation. A lot of the fragmentation that we see out there is because we've got these capabilities now on handsets.

Parrott: ... Both higher-end horsepower on the smartphones and a much better browsing experience or engine are now showing up on the iPhone-class machines. The programming model that is now available enables a whole new class of Web-type applications, which, in the past, has been reserved for native applications.

... As you start to move forward with the WebKit-type browsers now more prevalent on these smarter phones, it's starting to represent a more common platform that we have a choice to target our application functionality toward.

Beers: Mobile has been something that's been part of MapQuest right along. It comes in the nature of our business, which is getting people from A to B. So, it's intrinsically mobile oriented.

A lot of what we've been doing in the last couple of years has been developing what we've been calling native applications here. ... As to the question of HTML 5 and how this changes the picture for companies like MapQuest, we're beginning to see that these capabilities make it so that we can take technology that powers the mapquest.com website that people use on their desktop and repurpose that very quickly to provide a beautiful and powerful Ajax Web experience on modern smartphones.

We found that, considering the amount of development and energy that's gone into making our native applications, and has gone into the mobile website that we have out there right now, what it took to get a great application on the iPhone was minimal. It was very impressive.

... It's not just a mobile Web story. We see companies like Palm coming out with essentially native application environments that use those tools for the presentation layer. That brings up all kinds of very interesting and productive new models for releasing essentially a native application that has really rich access to the underlying features on the device -- things like GPS and the accelerometer. That's also a very exciting application model for companies like MapQuest to look at.

... You're starting to see phones that essentially will have two tiers on them. You're going to see developers having a choice to say, "Do I want to be operating completely in JavaScript and exercise my skills there in the WebKit environment, or do I want to have some of the application logic below that, perhaps in a Java environment, where it's essentially being a local server on the device for the presentation layer on top?"

You start to combine those things, and it allows all kinds of different components that are out there and that have been driving the innovation in the Internet to come into play on mobiles in ways that we haven't seen before.

Parrott: Obviously, one of the forces driving us has been enterprise organizations that want to move to the mobile Web. ... What they're pushing us for is, "How do we get there from here?" They already have a lot of their own infrastructure and resources in place, but moving that to the mobile Web has been a challenge for them.

[Now ] you have what we call the Mobile Web Programming Model so that you can now build some very sophisticated functionality that you run directly in the browser. You have to be educated about what you want to run local. Do you want to serve static content or do you want to push functionalities directly to the particular smartphone device?

We're servicing both -- helping educate and provide tooling and educational services for both Web developers and traditional enterprise developers -- Java developers who are moving over, bringing their programming know-how and experience, and applying that to dynamic Web applications.

Read a full transcript of the discussion.