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iPhone boosts Ajax and fluid UIs

But Nokia will take them mainstream

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Comment It was predictable, given Apple's history, that the iPhone would be a fairly closed environment, but there has still been consternation in some quarters that it will be so tough for mobile developers to create applications for the device - at a time when most phonemakers are finally opening up their platforms, and recognizing that developer support is key to a product's success.

However, while the iPhone may not support Java or (as yet at least) Flash, its eye-catching identity does revolve around one of the strongest browsers yet seen in the mobile world, and one that is Ajax-enabled, arousing speculation that the product will kickstart interest in the browser-based development environment in the mobile world.

The Safari browser included in the iPhone supports the new breed of 'fluid user interface' that is often associated with Ajax, and Apple's influence - and the inevitable copying of its look and feel by other device makers - should help to legitimize both technologies as complements, or alternatives, to the dominant Java and its associated interfaces.

If Apple can spark renewed interest in mobile Ajax and new UI approaches, it will be Nokia that is most likely to push them into the mainstream - and of course, Nokia already has a phone using the Safari browser, whose mobile implementation it co-developed with Apple, and boasting many of the characteristics that caused such a stir at the iPhone's launch.

While Nokia has been the most powerful supporter of mobile Java and of a mobile internet/browser experience based on Java-oriented UIs (notably its own Series 60), it has recently become far less religious about its technology choices and has been casting its net wider, embracing Linux in its Internet Tablet 770, and showing signs of interest in Ajax. All of which points to an intensified focus on its own Safari and fluid interface efforts, and which reinforces the logic that Nokia and Apple could be partners, rather than rivals, in the media handset business. In fact it is likely that the two will remain both rivals and partners for some time to come.

It will do no harm to Apple iPhone sales if a new breed of high volume, lower priced handsets come to market boasting similar capabilities to the iPhone, and creating a fashion move away from existing handset interfaces. It will also do no harm to Apple’s handset strategy if rival platforms shipping in greater volumes end up either paying royalties or opening up access to other handset based intellectual property for free.

Nokia said last spring that it was evaluating broader use of Ajax with its handsets, particularly in conjunction with its Safari-based browser, having included support for the software platform in its third edition Series 60 device. "A lot of it has to do with the availability of the newer browsing platforms. We are going to have to look at developers. That's where Ajax will be getting a lot of play," Lee Epting, president of the Forum Nokia developer community of 1.3m members, told The Register last year.

Ajax will be important to Nokia because it has become a cornerstone of Web 2.0 techniques, which revolve around the browser as the only client, using web services, fluid interfaces and other approaches to improve the online development and user experience. And Nokia is determined to lead the mobile implementation of Web 2.0 techniques, which are becoming prevalent - as is Ajax itself - on enterprise platforms. Last year it announced Widsets, which allows for dynamic mobile access to content using widgets, both features that are hallmarks of Web 2.0.

The appeal of Ajax in such a strategy will be that it can enable software developers and service providers to give online services the level of interface functionality and responsiveness traditionally only found on desktop applications, and for the mobile world, it also supports applications that work in 'occasionally connected' mode. As in the PC world, the practicality of using the browser as the universal mobile client is increasing – though there are still major hurdles before Ajax is really suited to mobile devices, including screen format. Mobile versions of Ajax applications have, to date, been hard to implement and usually need a whole new code base - in contrast to the simplicity of porting Flash applications to mobile architectures using Flash Lite. Given its ambivalence towards Flash, it will be in Apple's interest to facilitate a friendlier mobile Ajax environment, providing hooks to mobilize existing apps and enable them to run unchanged on desktop or mobile Safari.

However, the advantages of the browser client – universal access from different devices and locations, support for web services and so on – are ensuring that considerable work is going into improving the user experience, especially as mobile systems that are geared to open internet access rather than carrier-controlled ‘walled gardens’ evolve. On cellular networks, Java’s mobile incarnation, J2ME, is emerging as the dominant application development and content delivery vehicle, but a browser-only model could support devices with smaller footprints and price tags.

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