iPhone boosts Ajax and fluid UIs
But Nokia will take them mainstream
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.
Nokia has also been quick to embrace the revival of scripting languages - such as Python, which it has offered since 2004 - which have new popularity among Web 2.0 developers because of their support for open source and their fast, simple programming environments. "I don't think people initially believed developers who are focused on mobile devices would be interested in scripting for mobiles," Epting said.
On the Ajax front, the main option is Opera, which supported the platform from an early stage in its browser. Other products include Pocket IE, although this is not cross-platform of course, and Mojax, a beta product from mFoundry, which offers an Ajax-like development environment based around scripts called moblets. Although not a true Ajax product, as it does not run through a browser, it does support the creation of cross-platform applets without the need to write Java. As such, it has the key appeal of mobile Ajax, and as so often in the mobile world, we are likely to see compromises made on the purity of the standard platform to make it more appropriate for cellphone formats and business models.
No browser-based technology will take off in the mobile world without a powerful user interface that is optimized for the device, and sporting a fully fledged browser plus widgets and a dynamic UI - as the iPhone does - looks to be the best route forward. It will be adopted by most of the mediaphone players, and much work has already been done by the likes of LG (we features an iPhone lookalike last week from LG). Apple is certainly not the first to show off the potential benefits of handset-based Ajax and fluid interfaces. The Nokia N80 and N73 have also made progress towards a fluid or dynamic UI, for instance with a multimedia key that opens up a multifunction window that is navigated using a tiny navigation stick. Some Sony Ericsson models boast close-to-dynamic UIs, as does T-Mobile USA's Faves capability running on the BlackBerry Pearl, and Alltel's new mobile internet UI, based on Qualcomm's UIone platform.
But the high profile of the iPhone and its marketing machine will give such techniques, and Ajax itself, new momentum in the cellular world. Eli Dickinson of Fierce Developer predicts that 2007 will see the first round of real mobile Ajax applications. We support that view, and if Apple's iPhone proves the catalyst for taking Ajax mainstream, it will be Nokia's mobile internet activities that turn the promise into reality. In both cases, the Safari browser looks set to have a huge impact on the mobile world, to the possible detriment of the highly advanced and Web 2.0 savvy Opera, and to gain a market share its iPhone host could only dream of.
Ajax is not a pure browser environment, since the client does need some form of local software, although this is installed by the manufacturer rather than downloaded or plugged in. And for now at least – though perhaps Open Ajax and other nascent standards moves will help – Ajax widgets are not transferable across multivendor platforms. Also, in its current form Ajax is nowhere close to Java for rich content applications such as games. But it does offer a consistent and simple set of tools for developers and, once supported by the device manufacturer, a cheap and flexible way to create and update applications – to the extent that very small user groups, with specialized requirements, can be economically catered for. This will be of particular interest to the MVNO virtual operators, many of which are very reliant on targeting ever more specific user bases.
The user experience remains far better with Java downloads for now, but as the browsing architecture changes, the gap is narrowing. The main problem has been fragmentation, with many different approaches to critical issues such as user interface and navigation. The potential of Ajax is to provide a unifying force as Java has in downloads, which in turn expands the appeal to developers and the base of applications available – especially as, because the level of abstraction shifts to the browser, applications are easier to update and target to small groups. Ajax has the chance to foster the creation of a widget authoring market such as exists in the Apple world.
Copyright © 2007, Faultline 
Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here .