What will be the Model T of the Mobile Web?

I’ve been following with some interest the press surrounding the 100th anniversary of the Model T, the original “people’s car” that is credited with creating the automative industry as we now know it. The Model T is famous for a number of reasons, but one thing I hadn’t quite appreciated was how versitile and extensible (to use a modern word) the car was. A whole after-market industry grew up around the T, letting people transform it into sports car, a truck, a tractor, a harvester – whatever task required motive power. This factor of openness and extensibility, combined with mass-production and low cost, helped to make the car a success story and created a new industry. The slightly more modern equivelent might be the IBM PC. But this left me wondering: what is the mobile computing equivelent to the Model T? What is the Model T of the mobile Web? Though I love it, I have to say the iPhone ain’t it. It fails on both the low cost and the extensibility criteria. The OLPC device fails on mass-market grounds.

What we need is for someone to come along and deliver a mass-market, low-cost device that is extensible and open but which has enough ease and simplicity of use that it is embraced by the great public and enough oomph to be a mobile Web workhorse. There is a gigantic vacuum in the mobile industry right now with this exact shape. Candidates include Google’s Android, Limo devices, next-generation Nokia devices based on the new Symbian Foundation and possibly even Microsoft Smartphones, developed under their new “end-to-end” strategy. Any others?

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7 Comments on “What will be the Model T of the Mobile Web?

  1. Qt-based devices. Qt is an exceptional framework for developing cross-platform and cross-device apps (not just mobile apps), and it now has WebKit as a core component, along with APIs that enable WebKit to be integrated into apps other than just the browser (that is, to enable interactive Web content to be embedded in other apps, and to for WebKit to be used as a rendering engine or “Web engine” or what have you in other apps).

    And Qt now also ships with a sort of reference-implementation browser UI that has already developed into a quite usable desktop browser — Arora http://code.google.com/p/arora/ — which is 100% free/open-source software (unlike the Nokia S60 and mobile Safari). Arora is not yet practical/usable as a mobile browser — because it lacks, for example, zooming or a small-screen rendering mode — but it could get there eventually.

  2. And then there’s Intel’s Moblin, Mobilinux, Qtopia, Hildon, etc. …is it me, or are they all starting to sound like Ikea furniture products?

  3. I would argue that the iphone is the “model T” of the mobile industry because of the cultural impact it’s having on society and its influence over all future design of devices and platforms.

    I would even go as far to say that the iphone will mark the start of the true open mobile web as soon it will no longer be about what device you have – but what platform you are running. Thanks to the iphone, consumers, brands, and marketers are looking at this channel differently.

    I agree with your assessment that the iphone isn’t the “jesus” phone for the industry, but neither was the model T at the time. It was neither affordable for the average person and it came with few options. For example, it only came in black at the time.


  4. Firefox. As we enter the realm of mobile – a place where we’re relatively new but well-equipped to play – we’re bring the entire web with us. We’re portable, and we’re going to run on devices everywhere shortly. Windows mobile, LiMo-based devices with GTK+, Qt-based devices and very likely Symbian as well. We don’t care as much about platforms as much as we care about bringing the web – a single web – to everyone. So we’ll run pretty much everywhere that doesn’t already have a well-integrated, recognizable branded browser, ala Safari or Android. Platforms don’t matter. The web matters.

    Low cost? Check. Recognizable brand? Check. Fits the needs of mobile users? Check. Can be modified to fit the needs of mobile users and a mobile web? Check. I think that over the coming year we’ll do fine and we’re bringing the web with us.

  5. That’s a tricky question because it depends a great deal on what part of the world you’re talking about or the whole world in general? For instance, an iPhone or a RIM device is ubiquitous for mobile web use in the US, whereas in Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s any newer Nokia device. Thus what is a Model T is hard to ascertain for the world at large.

  6. I’ll put in my 2 cents for the Openmoko. Sure, it’s got a way to go, but it is slated to become a) a mass market device, b) fully extensible. It’s still expensive right now, but the price will drop eventually. And if the Openmoko software makes it to a decent level – or Android gets ported – it could be awesome.

    Or, it could suck because it’s too hard to use and relies too much on Linux hacking / coding, so never breaks the mass market. But in reality, a lot of companies / groups are adopting the Openmoko *because* they can develop their own tools on top of a working cell phone / Linux device…

  7. I would have to vote for the iPhone as well. There hasn’t been a device that has impacted mobile web browsing like it has. I haven’t seen the Firefox browser – but I doubt it will be a smooth as Safari on the iPhone…..which is great! I just wish another carrier would pick it up.

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