The iPhone, dotMobi and the Future of the Mobile Web
James Pearce (CTO of dotMobi) wrote a great article yesterday about the impact of the iPhone on the industry and what it means for them. Of course, he’s right. What the iPhone is doing is helping the Web along to become a mobile medium. Does this make dotMobi or efforts like the W3C Mobile Web Initiative obsolete?
Let me pose the question another way. In 5 years’ time, when the majority of Web usage is from mobile devices, will we all be using the browsers on these devices to pan, scan and zoom around pages that were designed for large screen desktop PCs? I think we can agree that this would be a kind of dystopian vision of the future of the Web. Apple certainly agrees. That’s why they released a set of guidelines on ptimizing Web Applications and Content for iPhone. These guidelines, while developed by Apple in house specifically to match the capabilities of the iPhone browser, bear a striking resemblance to the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices and the dotMobi Developer Guide in their approach, language and purpose. All these documents are trying to change the mind-set of developers to get them to think about both the technical differences between mobile devices and PCs (for example, Apple saying “a touch-screen is not a mouse”) and also the differences in usage and behavior that need to be taken into account in designing for mobile use.
The main difference between the Apple guidelines and the dotMobi and W3C documents are the level of browser technology assumed. Because the dotMobi and W3C guidelines are targeting a wide range of form factors, devices and browsers (some of which are fairly bare-bones) they encourage the developer to not rely on scripting, advanced CSS or other technologies that are usually not well supported in these devices (while encouraging developers to use these capabilities when they do know that the device/browser in question supports them). Apple’s guidelines are targeting only one browser on only one device, so they can afford to tell developers to use Web technologies like CSS, scripting and AJAX.
In two weeks’ time, however, the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices working group (which I chair and which includes dotMobi as a member) will be meeting in London. This meeting will be the kick off of a new phase of work for the group. We will be working on a successor document to the basic guidelines document issued earlier this year. The new document will provide guidelines to developers targeting more advanced devices, like the iPhone; devices where you can assume a higher level of capability. I have called on Apple to contribute their developer guidelines into this effort. Why? Because it’s in their best interest to make sure that Web sites and applications developed for the iPhone also work across a range of other devices, and that mobile Web applications designed according to industry standard guidelines work seamlessly on their devices.
The iPhone will herald a whole generation of advanced Web-capable mobile devices. In this context, a converged set of Web developer guidelines for such devices will be a boon to the developer community and will help create the necessary conditions for the evolution of the Web into the Mobile space, an evolution which Alan Moore, in a very thoughtful essay, calls the dawn of the 7th Mass Medium.
It’s the Web. But not as we know it.