High end mobile devices have been with us now for almost 7 years and they have utterly transformed the way we access information. Mobile phones and smartphones that have access to the Internet and host smart applications are in the hands of a large percentage of the population of the world. In many places even very remote, cell phones and even smart phones are a common sight.
I’ll never forget when I was in India in 2011 I was up in the Southern Indian mountains riding an elephant out of a tiny local village, with an elephant herder in front riding atop of the elephant in front of us. He was dressed in traditional garb with the loin wrap and head cloth/turban as did quite a few of the locals in this small out of the way and not so touristy village. So we’re slowly trundling along in the forest and he’s lazily using his stick to guide the elephant and… 10 minutes in he pulls out his cell phone from his sash and starts texting. In the middle of texting a huge pig jumps out from the side of the trail and he takes a picture running across our path in the jungle! So yeah, mobile technology is very pervasive and it’s reached into even very buried and unexpected parts of this world.
Apps are still King
Apps currently rule the roost when it comes to mobile devices and the applications that run on them. If there’s something that you need on your mobile device your first step usually is to look for an app, not use your browser. But native app development remains a pain in the butt, with the requirement to have to support 2 or 3 completely separate platforms.
There are solutions that try to bridge that gap. Xamarin is on a tear at the moment, providing their cross-device toolkit to build applications using C#. While Xamarin tools are impressive – and also *very* expensive – they only address part of the development madness that is app development. There are still specific device integration isssues, dealing with the different developer programs, security and certificate setups and all that other noise that surrounds app development.
Apps can be a big pain to create and manage especially when we are talking about specialized or vertical business applications that aren’t geared at the mainstream market and that don’t fit the ‘store’ model. If you’re building a small intra department application you don’t want to deal with multiple device platforms and certification etc. for various public or corporate app stores. That model is simply not a good fit both from the development and deployment perspective.
Even for commercial, big ticket apps, HTML as a UI platform offers many advantages over native, from write-once run-anywhere, to remote maintenance, single point of management and failure to having full control over the application as opposed to have the app store overloads censor you.
To me the Web as a mobile platform makes perfect sense, but the reality of today’s Mobile Web unfortunately looks a little different…
Where’s the Love for the Mobile Web?
Yet here we are in the middle of 2014, nearly 7 years after the first iPhone was released and brought the promise of rich interactive information at your fingertips, and yet we still don’t really have a solid mobile Web platform.
Personally I’ve been working a lot with AngularJs and heavily modified Bootstrap themes to build mobile first UIs and that’s been working very well to provide highly usable and attractive UI for typical mobile business applications. From the pure UI perspective things actually look very good.
Not just about the UI
But it’s not just about the UI - it’s also about integration with the mobile device. When it comes to putting all those pieces together into what amounts to a consolidated platform to build mobile Web applications, I think we still have a ways to go… there are a lot of missing pieces to make it all work together and integrate with the device more smoothly, and more importantly to make it work uniformly across the majority of devices.
I think there are a number of reasons for this.
Slow Standards Adoption
HTML standards implementations and ratification has been dreadfully slow, and browser vendors all seem to pick and choose different pieces of the technology they implement. The end result is that we have a capable UI platform that’s missing some of the infrastructure pieces to make it whole on mobile devices. There’s lots of potential but what is lacking that final 10% to build truly compelling mobile applications that can compete favorably with native applications.
Some of it is the fragmentation of browsers and the slow evolution of the mobile specific HTML APIs. A host of mobile standards exist but many of the standards are in the early review stage and they have been there stuck for long periods of time and seem to move at a glacial pace. Browser vendors seem even slower to implement them, and for good reason – non-ratified standards mean that implementations may change and vendor implementations tend to be experimental and likely have to be changed later. Neither Vendors or developers are not keen on changing standards. This is the typical chicken and egg scenario, but without some forward momentum from some party we end up stuck in the mud. It seems that either the standards bodies or the vendors need to carry the torch forward and that doesn’t seem to be happening quickly enough.
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