Web 3.0 is Mobile

23 April 2011

Reviewing this morning's New York Times, skimming stories about Samsung counter-suing Apple over copyright infringement centering around patents for mobile technologies, and coverage of the recent Amazon E2 cloud services outage taking down sites like 4square, and flipping past advertisements for the new Apple iPad2, it occurred to me that the technology world is experiencing a seismic shift like nothing it has seen since the introduction of the internet. Mobile technology is booming, end running challenges formerly considered insurmountable, like the Germans circling the Maginot line. Data connectivity is penetrating Africa, once thought a hopeless endeavor given the vast spaces that would have to be covered in cable. GSM wireless technology has obviated this infrastructure roll out and killed projects like OLPC in a fell swoop. Whole business models are being built upon wireless smartphones and tablets, and increasingly wireless is becoming the primary means by which people experience the internet. Everything from social media to banking and e-commerce are moving to mobile platforms, creating new opportunities and challenges.

There is no reason for the average American household to have a desktop computer any more. Certain tasks, such as preparing taxes, may still require a keyboard, but most consumer tasks can be performed quickly and easily with any smartphone or tablet. The clunky, wired, desktop computer is becoming a thing of the past. Pushed out of the gaming market by ever faster (and interconnected) console systems, desktop computers were always a rough fit for most consumers (just look at early Apple II literature that showed families laying on a bed around their massive keyboard box and monitor). Looking at the increasing numbers of American households that no longer have land lines you can quickly surmise where their DSL and cable modem connections are disappearing to as well.

Cell phone providers are poised to become the major ISP's in the US, and across the globe. Once terrified of losing market share to cable companies, phone network dominance over the cellular networks means they have a stranglehold over service. Sure, 802.11 wireless access points at homes, coffee shops, hotels, and offices tied to ISP's by wires, will continue to be available, but will increasingly become obsolete as more and more people use their smart phones and cellular enabled tablets, and even cell phone tethered laptops, to access the internet. One reason why this progression is inevitable is it's simplicity. If everyone carries their own data connectivity they don't have to hassle with configuring new networks, getting credentials, switching authentication methods, and all the other hassles of trying to plug into someone else's network. Now that users can simply whip out their smartphone or tablet and tap the screen to connect, who would want all that extra headache?

This shift is allowing savvy businesses to build their entire existence around mobile platforms. However, folks are missing the bigger picture in their rush to develop the next Angry Birds application. The entire web experience is different over mobile. Flash, the dominant interactive presentation technology, simply doesn't work on a wide swath of the available platforms. Even the move to HTML 5 won't make a cluttered website easy to use, or attractive, to end users, most of whom are switching to "apps" for their interactions. Just look at social media like Facebook or Twitter, if you're on a mobile platform you use the app for those sites, rather than pulling up your clunky mobile browser and attempting to use the web interface. Some progress has been made in fingerprinting user platforms and tailoring experience to mobile users, but the practice is still in its infancy and using the web on a mobile device is a tenuous endeavor.

Where does this leave programmers, vendors, and content providers? Increasingly successful businesses need to look hard at the mobile environment as the new internet. Instead of testing new web services against Chrome, Opera, Firefox, and old versions of IE, developers need to consider the user experience on a mobile device. It's also important to think about the curve of the mobile application interface. Is it more valuable to stick with a tried and true, platform independent protocol like HTTP, or will the lack of useful mobile web drive users away from HTTP and alienate your offering? Is investment in a single mobile platform worth the cost of development for specific operating systems.

Mobile applications do have significant advantages over mobile web. Because they run client side they are faster and can be more interactive. Also they can access data from the device, such as GPS, hardware buttons, and cameras. Unhindered by the chrome of a browser the mobile application can utilize the full real estate of the device. While this is critical on a mobile phone it may be less of an issue on a tablet. Increasingly, however, developers have more to gain from application deployment in terms of access to end user data and interaction with the hardware.

This move to mobile computing will have vast ramifications for disciplines from networking, to security, to accessibility. New challenges will face traditional bastions of the internet and, I predict, will instigate a sea change that may see new players rise to dominance in the next iteration of the internet. Although some championed Web 2.0 as the next generation of internet experience, I think the delta of change to Web 2.0 will be dwarfed by the move to mobile.