Mobile Applications are dead, but will the web really be the answer?


Michael Mace, ex Palm employee, brilliant blogger who doesn’t write often, but when he does drops bombs, is of the opinion that the mobile application sector is dead. I’m not going to disagree with him on that. There are too many platforms out and making money with how the current mobile telecommunications food chain is setup can prove close to impossible.

His answer to where the next generation of developers will look for bread money: the internet.

Mobile browsing is taking off, big time. Michael lists the reasons we’re all familiar with: Nokia’s great S60 web browser, Apple’s brilliant iPhone web browser, unlimited data plans taking off in Europe and Americans finally figuring out how to do more than make calls and send that rare text message. Again, I’m not disagreeing with the notion that the mobile browser is a fantastic platform for the delivery and manipulation of data. The sole complaint I have with this article is the fact that the jump from rich system level api’s enabling developers to create amazing experiences, to the other end of the spectrum of writing HTML and Javascript calls for a browser, happens in the blink in an eye and is treated like the end all solution.

There are certain people today in the PC world who think that the move to online applications will happen inevitably, sooner rather than later, and that the operating system underneath is irrelevant. They’re equally as idealistic as Mr. Mace. Microsoft, Adobe and more recently Nokia are taking steps to create yet more platforms, but these will be different. Microsoft with Silverlight on the Desktop and soon to be Silverlight on Mobile will be joining the already under utilized .Net Compact Framework on Windows Mobile devices. Adobe with AIR for the Desktop and soon Air for Mobile will join Flash Lite which is deployed on numerous platforms. Nokia purchased Trolltech to enable Qt on all their devices: S40, S60 and Maemo. The Mobile Application space is not dead, but the classic definition of what it is to be a Mobile Application is changing.

The use of web technologies like HTML, CSS and AJAX will be used in conjunction with these new middleware platforms to build Rich Internet Applications for mobile phones. The problem, and there is no doubt in my mind it will happen, is that the API’s to access location based information or access to the contact book will be different among the various vendor platforms. The W3C is taking steps to expose a devices’ capabilities to web applications, but no one knows how successful that initiative will be, if at all.

I don’t have the answers, and I do realize being a developer in the mobile space must be one of the most exciting and aggravating experiences of a code monkey’s life, but to say that the browser is the end all solution is short sighted and throwing away the key reasons why the mobile space is exciting in the first place: the contextual information within and around a persons’ device. There will be another step, the RIA step, and it will cause even more fragmentation. The problems with Silverlight for Mobile and Air for Mobile will be the lisencing fees and a device manufactures primal instinct to keep the bill of materials low. The problem with Qt is that it will be seen as the open source and “free” solution, but Nokia holds the keys to the potential of having your code merged. The problem with the W3C is it takes time for people to start using standards.

From the looks of it there are lots of issues, but there is no need to so negative about the situation. The mobile space is moving faster than ever and margins are falling for everyone on devices. The future of value creation will be in applications and services, we just have to figure out, together, how to extract that value.

It will happen faster than you think.

  • Stefan Constantinescu

    jouni: thanks! we’re far from that in my honest opinion. follow up article coming soon.

  • Vlad

    My take on this is that this may indeed be the future, but right now it’s not even there yet for the computer (steps are being made, but software installed on the computer still has more functionality). So if we’re talking mobile, it will happen in the best case simultaneously to when the computer gets there, and I can’t see this being sooner than in 2 years’ time. And that’s a lot of time in the tech world, so we’ll have to wait and see, maybe in the mean time someone will figure out that extremes are never good, and “the best of all worlds” is the way to go.

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