I've mentioned that September is Month of Mobility at Read/Write Web, but I haven't posted about it as much as I wanted to. Why? It's because the mobile world is mostly new to me, which means I've had to batch process a whole bunch of information about it over the past few weeks.
Frankly I've been so absorbed in the PC Web over the years, that I haven't taken much notice of the Mobile Web. But it's sneaking up on everyone! The point when the Mobile Web came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and cleared its throat, was just after I got a new WAP-enabled phone. That was at the end of August and I've been playing with my new phone since then. At the same time I started to explore the world of the Mobile Internet. Also during this time I've been writing content for my eBook Culture blog - and it won't surprise you that in my last 3 posts over there, I've been exploring the connections between eBooks and the Web. There is some crossover - for me anyway - in the worlds of Web, mobile phones, PDA's, and eBooks.
So, I haven't yet got to the synthesis stage of my information processing on the Mobile Internet - let alone the analysis. But I thought it'd be useful to do a brain dump now.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee did an interview with internetnews.com last week. While most of it covered the usual ground (Semantic Web, Web Services), at the end he spoke about what he calls the "Mobile Web". He was asked what emerging technology excited him and he replied:
"...one area to watch is the mobile Web. I'm seeing a lot of initiatives and energy in this space. The same energy you see here at this [SpeechTek] conference with the voice sector, you'll see that energy replicated in the mobile space. This will be a big area. Over the next six months, you should watch this space for some exciting things."
My ears really pricked up when he said that "a strong mobile Web is about device independence". This is a theme that the eBook industry is struggling with right now. I won't bore you with the details, but basically eBooks come in many many formats - and most of them only work on specific devices and/or are crippled with DRM "functionality". If there was a scale measuring device independence, then eBooks would be near the bottom of that scale.
What Sir Tim wants is a Web that can be extended into the mobile space, not one that breaks off into it's own unique version of the Web. The Mobile Web must be interoperable with the PC Web as we know it today (HTML pages principally), which in practical terms means it has to use the same standards and formats. Sir Tim wants a "unified Web", one that enables users to "browse the Web from any phone and from any device without limitations."
I'll follow up with a post later about the W3C efforts to obtain device independence.
When you're talking mobile phones and the Internet, one blogger stands out from the crowd - Russell Beattie, who wrote recently:
"It's not just about the ability of the phones, but about their ubiquity. Remember back in the mid 90s when everyone was going nutso about the economies of scale provided by the Web? Well, they haven't seen nothing. Right now the industry is on track to sell 650 million new phones in 2004."
There's no doubt that statistically, mobile phones are the big untamed market of the Internet. I recently wrote about the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) and their report entitled The Portable Internet [btw all these different terms are pretty much interchangeable: Mobile Internet, Mobile Web, Portable Internet]. The ITU said that in October 2003 the Asia Pacific region passed 1 billion telecommunications users. They predict that before 2010, there will be an extra billion users there and "the majority of them will be connected using radiocommunications".
Russell Beattie and Sir Tim seem to be on the same wavelength in terms of timeframes. Russell gives it 6 months to a year for the mobile internet scene to explode. He says:
"...there's going to be a time, very soon, when more people are accessing the internet via their mobile devices rather than PCs. I think what's going to surprise a lot of people is how quickly that's going to happen."
Russell is one to watch in this space and it looks like he's already working on a new mobile internet business. He encourages others to join the fray:
"What interests me is the other data services - the communication, collaboration, coordination and information services that have yet to be taken advantage of. There are lots of opportunity out there for mobile apps that tap into these markets."
Nearly Mobile Internet
One of the key factors in uptake of the Mobile Internet is data speed. And although subscriber and developer-wise we're getting closer to Mobile Internet Nirvana, the fact is a lot of us are still on pre-3G mobile networks. Roland Tanglao recently called it "the GPRS version of the mobile internet" and we in New Zealand are in the same boat. NZ has GPRS and CDMA mobile networks, but we've been promised 3G for years. Our neighbour Australia is a bit ahead of us in the mobile world, as Hutchison already has a 3G network - using the brandname 3.
Apart from speed, the user-friendliness of the mobile internet and its applications is another hurdle. As of this date, it's still a pain for people to use a pokey little keypad and screen for mobile internet. The mobile jigsaw (fitting all the pieces together) I wrote about earlier is also an issue.
On the positive side, the handsets available these days are much easier to use and have more functionality than even a couple of years ago - and they will get even better before the year is out. Plus with people like Russell developing new services and apps, there's a lot of developer enthusiasm around (don't forget it wasn't that long ago that WAP in particular was ridiculed by developers). So mobile apps and services are getting increasingly user-friendly.
As Russell expanded upon, it's a new form of media. Just as eBooks shouldn't just duplicate paper books, the Mobile Web shouldn't be about replicating PC Websites and apps onto a mobile platform. And as Sir Tim says, it's all about extending the Web so the Mobile Web complements and interoperates with the PC Web.
It's going to be an interesting ride over the next 6 months!