When Galaxies Collide

Photo Credit: Ariff Shah

[This is a re-posting of a two-part blog post originally published on the Mobile 2.0 blog. For a discount code for mobile 2.0, please DM me on Twitter or leave a comment here and I’ll send you one.]

If you’ve ever seen one of those NASA simulations of galaxies colliding, you’ll know it’s a messy business. Symmetric spirals, serenely evolving and progressing through the universe on their own, suddenly encounter each other. The result is a violent conflagration. Plumes of previously well-ordered stars go shooting off into space, only to be drawn back in and shot out again in another directions; seeming child galaxies form, only to be absorbed again in more churning cataclysms. The time-scales over which this occurs are, of course, astronomical. At human-scale time, all we can ever perceive is a moment, frozen in time.

We are in the middle of such an event right now in both the Web and mobile industries. Our galaxies are colliding; they have been colliding for a number of years; and they will continue to collide for years to come. The result will be a new landscape, a new ecosystem, a new industry. What that industry will look like is not clear, but we can guess at its shape. At this year’s mobile 2.0 conference in San Francisco, we are once again going to take a stab at doing just this.

In 2006, before our first Mobile 2.0 event, when I first sensed the colliding of these two galaxies, I wrote a post about what I thought that future might look like. I stole a page out of the book of Tim O’Reilly in trying to define Mobile 2.0, attempting to use the same approach he used for the (then newly-minted) term “Web 2.0” to get a hold of what I saw happening in the convergence between the Internet/Web and Mobile worlds. One of the key ideas in this post was that the future of mobile was both the Web and connected applications. That view of the world was driven by what I saw happening with the fledgling app ecosystem on (then primarily Nokia / Symbian) connected smartphones and the fledgling mobile Web ecosystem, especially what was going on with webkit-based mobile browsers (also pioneered by Nokia). In my 2006 view of the future, the Web and connected applications would co-exist and (importantly) the Web would be the vector whereby these applications would be discovered, downloaded and installed.

Well, I almost got it right. What I didn’t anticipate was the rise of paid app stores. The bundled app stores (which are apps themselves) has created a gravity around downloadable, installable apps. So – while it has now become possible, on modern smartphones, to find and download apps from a universe of choices, that universe is actually constrained in some very important ways. What you can discover is constrained. How you can pay is constrained. And importantly for the developer, the tools they can use, types of applications they can build, and ways they can make money are, to a greater or lesser degree, constrained.

HTML5 is being touted by many as alternative approach to building apps – apps that would live in the browser in the same away that browser-based apps have started to appear on the PC Web. In some ways, this is true. Some in the mobile industry have jumped on HTML5 as a panacea, finally delivering “write once, run anywhere” apps. It also is being seen as a way around the vertically controlled app ecosystem promoted and maintained by the platform providers.

HTML5 is not primarily about mobile. It is about the evolution of the Web. It is about the consolidation of the Web platform. The Web has been on an evolution path since the first browsers, roughly speaking from a Web of documents to a Web of applications; from the Web as a document sharing system to the web as an application development and deployment platform. HTML5, and the related APIs, protocols and formats that are often lumped together with it, is simply the latest sign-post on that evolutionary path. The Web has had a profound impact, not only on commerce and industry but on humanity, on the way we now expect to consume information, interact and communicate with others. The Web by its nature is open. It is built primarily on royalty-free standards, it is closely (though not exclusively) tied to open source projects and software, it is diffuse and does not allow for a single point of control. This open Web platform of technologies includes new features that start to bring the Web on a par with native approaches to application development – specifically, off-line use (launching and using a Web application even when not connected to the network), access to device features (geolocation now with more APIs quickly following behind) and fluid UI (smooth animations, touch events, 2d graphics and other technologies needed to provide compelling user experiences). Building Web applications with HTML5 is still software engineering and it is still hard work, but it may make it possible to leverage the abilities of an engineering team already skilled up in the ways of the Web to build (and more importantly revise and maintain) mobile services more easily and at lower cost than maintaing separate teams (or outsourced teams) to build apps on different architectures.

What’s more, the same parties, the same companies, in many cases the same people who promote the “closed” app ecosystems are also pouring resource and money into this open Web ecosystem, a parallel ecosystem. This can make companies like Google and Apple seem schizophrenic at times. But look at the bigger picture. The apps world looms large in mobile, partially because it is the fulfilment of an idea that many people evangelized for many years, but which stubbornly refused to come true. Yes – finally people are using the mobiles for something else other then voice and text. And this use has become mainstream. That’s one way to look at it. But look at it from the Web industry point of view. The developer of a service or application on the Web wants reach – reach to as many platforms as possible for as cheaply as possible. They see mobile as a channel to customers and to more usage of their application. Mobile is only one piece of the puzzle to them – and mobile apps and app stores are only one channel to market.

So what does HTML5 really mean for mobile? If we are to glimpse an answer to that question then we have to move beyond the “web vs. apps” mentality. Application developers need to consider the Web platform along side of the various “native” application development platforms out there as one approach, one potential set of tools, one possible way to reach users, with its unique set of plusses and minuses.

In the end, it is clear that HTML5 will play an important part in this cosmic collision between Web and mobile of which we currently find ourselves a part. The lasting legacy of HTML5 in mobile, however, may be the linking of the evolution of the Web to the evolution of mobile apps. And while the Web may be evolving to be a better platform for mobile apps, and this is a positive step for the Web and for mobile, the more exciting development will be how the Web disrupts app stores by providing a compelling alternative to app stores for service and application discovery.

At Mobile 2.0 this year, I’m glad to say we’ll be exploring some of these issues with a galaxy of stars – people who have been working at the sharp end of the convergence between the mobile and Web and at the sharp end of disruptive innovation in mobile. At one of our afternoon workshops (“Mobile Web Present and Future”) we will be delving deep into the issues of the impact of HTML5 on mobile. We’ll be looking at current best practices for building great mobile applications using HTML5 and related technologies (with James Pearce from Sencha and Mat Womer from W3C – the standards body responsible for HTML5). Then we’ll switch to thinking about the (mobile) Web platform of the future. What’s missing from from the Web platform from a mobile perspective? Scott Jenson, who wrote a compelling piece on this topic earlier this year, will lead this part of the workshop. The intention of this workshop is to “move the needle” – to create help to create a community of practice around these technologies that will last beyond the event itself. I hope you’ll join us.

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