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iPhone boosts Ajax and fluid UIs

But Nokia will take them mainstream

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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.

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