Mobile AJAX browser wars

Apple’s new iPhone has really put the spotlight on the mobile web experience. Up until now, mobile handsets have had a limited dumbed-down type of browsing experience from their desktop counterparts. The iPhone uses Safari webkit code which basically allows Safari Mobile to render web pages just as they were intended for the desktop. This technology is also being used by the S60 web browser that Nokia is supporting. What does this mean for web developers that wish to target AJAX for the mobile browser platform? Firstly, AJAX-enabled sites can now run on the mobile handset with little to no extra coding effort. Unfortunately, not all mobile handsets have the same web browsing feature set as the iPhone’s Safari Mobile or the S60 platform. We can only hope that the iPhone will cause other handset makers to adopt the same web browsing experience and wait for the old mobile web browsers to disappear the way of Netscape 4 or IE 4. Unfortunately, we cannot wait that long.

Web developers in the desktop world have had to deal with cross-browser incompatibilities when writing code. The same can be said for the old class of mobile handsets and their fragmented support for WAP, XHTML, JavaScript, and AJAX. To my knowledge, there are only a few mobile web browsers capable of rendering AJAX.

If your phone runs on the Windows Mobile platform, IE Mobile is the default web browser installed. According to the IE Mobile developer blog, AJAX is supported on IE Mobile. Unfortunately, the JavaScript DOM support is limited. Therefore, most AJAX toolkits out there will NOT render their AJAX widgets correctly on IE Mobile. Come to think of it, I am not sure that any AJAX toolkits even consider testing on IE Mobile or any other mobile web browser for that matter.

The Opera platform is probably the most well-known mobile web browser that is capable of supporting AJAX. The only thing slowing its adoption is the fact that it is not free, and it is a separate download and install. Opera does have a free version called Opera Mini, but it is not known to support AJAX. Opera Mobile is also only targeted for Symbian and Windows Mobile platforms. This leaves out Blackberry users, which is significant base of mobile web users out there. The only other way for Blackberry users and other handsets to adopt AJAX-like functionality is through the use of Java MIDlets (J2ME). However, this requires the handset to include a J2ME runtime, and it is a separate application install. Speaking of J2ME, Mojax is yet another platform that promises to enable AJAX in a large subset of mobile devices.

To recap… Full AJAX supported mobile web browsers are far and few between. The iPhone’s Safari Mobile and S60 Platform is a giant leap forward for mobile AJAX. The other players include Windows Mobile, and Opera Platform. Blackberry and the rest of the field can use J2ME technology to fill the gaps for AJAX-like web content, but it really is not a true mobile web browser experience (as it is a separate application install required). Any bets as to who will lead this pack? Let’s just hope that more and more mobile web browsers will support AJAX, and that everyone works together to ensure that we do not have the same cross-browser incompatibilities that have plagued the desktop web browser world.

Resources:
http://www.fiercedeveloper.com/story/editor-s-corner/2007-01-23
http://my.opera.com/operaplatform/blog/
http://my.opera.com/operaplatform/links/


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Why No Apple iPhone 3rd Party Apps?

Although many OS X developers out there were salivating over the prospect of potentially creating apps for the Apple iPhone, the consensus on the web and blogosphere is that Apple is not about to do that. I believe there are two big reasons why they are right.

Firstly, Apple is renowned for its tight control over the iPod. They never opened up the iPod for 3rd party apps, so why should they start opening it up for the iPhone (which essentially is an iPod with phone functions)? Let’s imagine that they let poor quality 3rd party apps to be installed on their iPods. The result is a poor image of Apple when Joe Schmoe decides to show off the app to his friends. Of course, the opposite could hold true where a killer 3rd party app gets shown, and the result is that Apple gets free good publicity. If you were Apple, would you take that chance?

Secondly, remember that they have a relationship with Cingular. Cingular would crap their pants if some 3rd party developer (i.e. Skype) created a VOIP application that allows people to by-pass the Cingular network to make calls. Think of the potential loss of revenue on Cingular’s part and you can understand why Apple would be hesitant to open up the iPhone for 3rd party apps. Of course, this assumes that Apple does indeed care about their partner Cingular and that it is not just a case of the “tail wagging the dog” syndrome. If Apple does call the shots (tail wagging the dog), then this argument goes out the window.

Finally, let’s not lose complete hope for 3rd party support. Apple did show off widgets functionality which in essence is really just Dashboard widgets for the phone. Dashboard widgets are really just a sandboxed web programming environment using JavaScript. Also, you have the Safari mobile browser built-in. There are a ton of web apps out there, and if people are willing to live online exclusively for their 3rd party apps, then this should not be too much of a problem.

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Apple iPhone’s Mobile Safari browser

For me, today’s announcement of the iPhone was revolutionary. The killer app isn’t the phone itself, or the wide-screen iPod functionality, it was the Internet functions (specifically the mobile Safari web browser). I said it before in a previous post, and Apple took it to heart and did it. I am now ready to proclaim that the Mobile Web 2.0 revolution is about to begin. Let’s see if Apple will release some iPhone AJAX APIs. If they do, it’ll mean some really great killer apps waiting to come out. 2007 will truly be the year of the mobiles.

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