:Ben Metcalfe Blog

Unifying the mobile platform: why the iPhone is really important

The reason why the iPhone is an important phone is not because of its shiny gadgetness or its touch interface. It’s not even important because it’s the first serious media player to be combined with a phone.

It’s important because of its web-based approach to application development. I believe this approach will spawn other manufactures to follow suit and in turn we will find ourselves with a truly unified development platform not owned by any single vendor or manufacturer.

Right now developing applications for mobile phones is a pain with no single way of rolling out an application to every phone (or even the majority of phones) on the market. Sun’s J2ME was supposed to solve all this but instead we still have a chaotic environment of different MIDP profiles, screensizes, capabilities and even carriers who prevent unsigned (read: non-rev-shared) java applets from running on some of their phones.

This is kind of what the world of computing was like before the Internet – when Macs wouldn’t read files created on PC’s and vice-versa. The internet came along and a common set of standards were created that allowed documents to be interchanged between any computer. Later on we managed to coerce those standards into lightweight applications that more often than not provide all the functionality we needed.

I believe we are finally going to see this happen on the mobile phone. Apple is leading the way by promoting the iPhone’s Safari browser as the development environment for the iPhone – but there is no reason why this can’t be emulated on other phones too.

Apple is setting the bar for future high end phones and the way to achieve the kind of features they are offering on other platforms is to also go the browser-orientated route too. That’s what will convince phone manufactures like Nokia and Sony Ericsson to focus on the browser in their future phones and in turn unify the platform for all of us.

The other ingredients are in place too. Opera is a great little browser on the phone and until today’s iPhone release was by far the most advanced mobile browser for javascript and early-ajax functionality. I’m sure they’ll be looking to partner with (or even sell to) a major manufacture to continue it’s development. Microsoft is already investigating this area with DeepFish, although it’s not current available for general use.

Google’s significant backing of Firefox development and its interest in the mobile space must also guarantee something is going on with Firefox. However we in the community need to make sure that the Mozilla/Firefox engine doesn’t get 0wned by Google solely for their benefit in the Google phone.

But not going to get one today…
So I swung by the Apple store in downtown San Francisco to check out the scrum just as they opened their doors at 6pm to start selling the iPhone.

It was chaos and there’s no way in the world I’d have wanted to spend more than a few hours in that environment – certainly not a 24hrs+ in line.

Most of the people queuing up wanted it because it’s the latest cool shiny gadget – and that’s fine, but it doesn’t float my boat. But it was interesting to spot a few interesting faces in the line, such as Netvibe’s Tariq Krim, who were buying it “solely for the API”. Tariq doesn’t even live in the US but can see the benefit of having one to build out Netvibes onto.

Personally, I’d love one for development but I have no interest in it as a consumer phone nor do I wish to be an AT&T Mobile customer.

Today it’s all about the “I have it first” crowd – and that’s not a head space I think is all that positive. I certainly don’t want to be part of it, but it’s one that Apple feeds off with great success. “A marketer’s wet dream” as my wife described it.

I look forward to reading the inevitable technical reviews of the phone and the official development documentation to grok when I need to build something for it. I also want to see what Blackberry, Nokia, Microsoft and Sony Ericsson have in the works in response.

(disclosure: Orange France Telecom is currently a significant client of mine, although I do not work in any mobile-related area for them. I do work on a project that is a competitor to Netvibes, mentioned in this article.)