Back in 1996 when the first “web applications” emerged at the apex of the client-server era, one common frame for looking at the tradeoffs of the web browser was talking about the “richness” of an interface like Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook against the “reach” of one like Hotmail or eGroups. While the productivity purists would bemoan the latency of the browser’s limited rendering capabilities handicapped by an Internet that was too slow, they would jealously look on as the web heads collected users by the millions on computers that differed in screen size, operating system, and even (gasp) Internet browsers.
In the end, reach won because networked applications benefit from more users, because the browser vendors had a clear spec to deliver to when it came to interactivity in the form of the GUI (and now no one remembers that Microsoft had more to do with this than any other single vendor), and because broadband became reliable and ubiquitous (at least in the first world). Interestingly though, it took about a decade and there were many who falsely claimed victory many times along the way.
Despite the excitement this last week at MWC in Barcelona around the mobile web as the future of mobile application deployment— an ebullience which reached a fevered pitch in the case of those who came to worship at the altar of the Mozilla/ZTE Firefox OS phone, the truth is probably along the lines of the Mark Twain statement that while history may not repeat itself, it certainly has a way of stuttering.
Firefox OS represents a noble cause: as per the marketing plastered all over their booth at MWC this week, it aims to “connect the next billion people” with affordable (read: anemic) hardware and an “open” platform. The demo I was given looked quite a bit like early WebOS demos did with the “apps” sitting on cards that could be moved around, paused/resumed, etc. It was a little laggy but surprisingly not as much as I had expected. In short, the device pointed to a future where fat apps will give way to the “reach” of folks who might carry loads of these devices, or in the case of the developing world, share them while all of the relevant bits of state live on a server.
It’s going to take a while though as was evident in how poorly the games showed (no sound), how much the tortured limited bandwidth of the show caused in terms of lag, and perhaps most importantly, how weak the story around offline remains, particularly for media storage.
More importantly, the mobile communicator (aka the smartphone) is so much more of a personal device that it feels the richness end of the spectrum is about much more than just snappier UI and local resources, extending to all sorts of sensors and actuators that will take the W3C a long time to bake into the DOM. And to boot, unlike PCs in the late 1990s, we’re a long way from over-serving the needs of the users on this platform.
I’d love to see the mobile web win, and have no doubt that it will in due time as it did on the prior dominant platform. But there is little reason to think that it won’t take a decade just as it did the last time and the belle of this year’s MWC ball was a good reminder of that.
Postscript: While noodling on this, this Engadget editorial perfectly captured a lot of the problems I saw at the booth.