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4 March 2010

Coping with mobile fragmentation

Filed under: applications, developer experience, fragmentation, runtimes, smartphones, standards — David Wood @ 10:21 pm

My recent article “Choosing intermediate mobile platforms” appeared on the same day as the TechCrunch article by Rich Wong, “In Mobile, Fragmentation is Forever. Deal With It“.  Despite the different titles, the articles covered many of the same topics.

Rich and I were fellow jury members at the Emerging Startups Mobile Premier Awards in Barcelona last month.  The discussions of the jury room ought to be kept confidential, but I’m not revealing too many secrets if I say that the topic of de-fragmentation magic bullets came up during our deliberations.  So it’s no coincidence that we both have something to say on the topic!

Even though I’ve written about mobile fragmentation many times in the past, Rich’s article has spurred me to put pen to paper one more time.  Mainly I agree with what he says, though there are a few additional points that deserve to be stressed.

Points of agreement

  • Mobile data is on fire. Despite a few false starts, we are now in the midst of a transformative “Open Mobile 3rd Wave” … We are just in the early swell of the wave … thanks to continued improvements we’re now seeing in smart phones, mobile OS platforms and 3G/4G networks, the raw ingredients are just getting better every month.
  • There is an alphabet soup of protocols, standards, and regional differences by country which can be daunting for any entrepreneur. Just look at the range of technologies on handset platforms alone…
  • Anyone who is waiting for a single silver bullet to solve fragmentation issues in mobile will be waiting a very long time, especially if they want to go after the global mobile opportunity…
  • Sadly, whether or not there is an elegant technical answer, it will be hard to drive any single set of worldwide standards given the different economic incentives of the many players, however good it would be for developers…
  • Get a guide.  It is difficult to explain the subtleties of the mobile ecosystem without a longer dialogue, but the good news is that there are quite a few battle-scarred mobile veterans around that can help you with the Cliff Notes on the industry. Find one to help you.
  • Don’t wait.  There’s an incredible startup and wealth-creating opportunity in this new arena of Open Mobile. The smartest entrepreneurs will not wait for these fragmentation issues to be solved but are figuring out now how to pick a use case, a core platform, and geography to bound their problem and get going. Once you have initial momentum, you can pick through these fragmentation landmines, and make a 2nd and 3rd step. Don’t wait for the unifying technology to solve these issues before diving in. It’s going to be an exciting time to build great mobile companies this next 5-7 years.

Next, let’s extend the discussion:

Some developers can find a magic bullet

It’s true: there won’t, in the foreseeable future, be a single platform that all developers can use to solve all their mobile needs.

However, platforms and tools are appearing which can address all the mobile needs of some developers.  I tried to give some examples of these potential solutions in my previous article.

I’m far from being an expert in any of these systems, so I risk being completely wrong in my assessment.  However, it does appear that at least some of these emerging solutions can remove a significant part of the technical pain from a developer who wants to deploy a particular kind of solution across a wide range of mobile devices.

Depending on the kind of application the developer has in mind, a different intermediate platform may be needed.  So, no single magic bullet.  But there are plenty of smart solutions that deserve a hearing.

Before trying to roll their own mobile solutions, developers should, therefore, take a look at what’s already available.

New intermediate platforms for old phones

Rich makes a good point when he notes,

One of the worst myths floating around the blogosphere is the wait by some for a “unifying technology” that will make things “simpler and easier” to develop services and apps for the global mobile market.  At times, some have claimed that Java (J2ME) was the answer, then Flash Lite, then Webkit browsers, and most recently HTML5. While each solution has its merits, there will not be any unification anytime soon. Even as HTML5 richness has improved substantially, browser support will still vary and many, many phones will not support HTML5 for 7+ years.

In other words, even if new devices contain a powerful new intermediate platform (such as HTML5), this will leave the vast majority of existing phones in the cold.

However, this dynamic can change, to the extent that new platforms can be installed on existing phones.

For example, Qt Labs have recently described a “smart installer” that is now available for beta testing:

Qt 4.6.2 is released, and in addition to all the bug fixes in it, we’ve also snuck in a feature or two, especially for the Symbian platform. One of interest is the ability for Qt to make use of the beta version of the Nokia Smart Installer, which makes it easier to deploy your Qt application to Symbian phones…

When the user now installs yourapp_installer.sis on their phone, the Smart Installer will go on-line and get all the dependencies that your Qt application requires, typically Qt and QtWebkit + Open C. If these packages are already installed on the phone, the Smart Installer does nothing. So, it is a little bit like an “apt-get for Symbian” has been wrapped around your application.

In other words, the Qt environment will be automatically installed onto the phone, if it’s not already present.

The drawbacks with this, of course, include the facts that upgraded new intermediate platforms can:

  • Have heavy hardware requirements – for example, they may use up a considerable portion of the available memory on older phones;
  • Be difficult to install on simpler phones (the above “smart installer” depends on the Symbian software installation system being present on the phone).

However, we can see these points as challenges rather than dead ends.  And it’s handy that there are a considerable number of intermediate platforms under development, adopting different approaches.  It’s reasonable to expect that at least some of these platforms will find ways to reach out successfully to older devices.

An imperative to solve the fragmentation problem

It’s true that developers need to make progress in the existing, heavily fragmented mobile world, without waiting for the fragmentation to be solved.

However, this doesn’t mean the mobile industry should stop worrying about the drawbacks of excess fragmentation.  The effort that people have to put in to bridge different fragments of the mobile world is effort that would be better placed providing direct benefits to users.

  • For example, suppose that a developer puts 40 units of effort into the platform-independent logic of an application, and then another 30 units of effort for each adaptation of the application to a different mobile operating system platform.  To cover six different mobile platforms would require a total of 220 units of effort.
  • Imagine, instead, that the developer could use an intermediate platform that would cover all these operating systems.  Suppose in this case that the adaptation to the single intermediate platform consumes 30 units of effort (on top of the 40 units for the platform-independent logic), and then the developer prefers to add a little polish for each of the different operating systems.  If the intermediate platform is doing its job well, this final polish ought be require something like just 5 units of effort each time.  That makes a total of 100 units of effort.
  • The net saving of 120 units of effort can then be applied to developing v2 of the application, or to some other quite different project, rather than wrestling with different mobile operating systems.

So whilst we advise developers that their approach to fragmentation should be to “Cope with it”, we should be vigorously campaiging at the same time for rapid progress towards meaningful standardisation of fit-for-purpose intermediate platforms.

The problems that need to be solved

I’ll end with some remarks about the main issues that this standardisation process (whether formal or informal) needs to solve:

  1. Performance – especially battery usage.  This includes coping with applications that want to run in background (potentially draining batteries).
  2. Functionality – so that the intermediate platform provides access to the really interesting parts of the functionality of the mobile device and the mobile networks.
  3. Security – to avoid applications wreaking havoc with user data (especially when these applications have accesss to advanced functionality of the device and network).
  4. Device reconfiguration – to cope with the fact that the “one box” design of most smartphones today is going to be replaced by “multi-component” designs over the next 3-7 years, with new roles for detachable screens (and more).
  5. Business models – to ensure that there are enough ways for applications to be economically viable (rather than just technically viable).
  6. Speed of standardisation – so that the big picture of “a rising tide lifts all boats” prevails, rather than the process becoming bogged down in smaller scale turf wars and filibustering.

On the last point, history might just show that the single most significant announcement at Mobile World Congress was about the formation of WAC – the Wholesale Application Community:

A number of the world’s leading telecommunications operators and device manufacturers are launching an open global alliance, that will establish a simple route to market for developers and provide access to the latest and widest range of innovative applications and services to as many customers as possible worldwide.

Together, we have signed a memorandum of understanding with the aim of building an environment or ’wholesale applications community’ where innovative applications can be developed irrespective of device or technology.

The new alliance, which represents more than three billion customers worldwide is inviting players from across the ICT industry, not only operators and developers, but also handset manufacturers and internet players to join forces to create an initiative based on openness and transparency. We believe this model presents the most compelling format on the market where developers will thrive and customers will reap the benefits of greater choice.

The mobile industry doesn’t have a great track record for working together quickly in this way.  However, more people than ever before in the industry are aware of the likely price of failure.

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1 Comment »

  1. We are a mobile tech company and have experienced many of the issues discussed in your article. We also share your view that fragmentation is here to stay and that a standard is probably not desirable for the mobile phone manufacturers.

    In a previous enterprise a dedicated team approach was followed, having a development team for each platform. This was extremely expensive, but missing out on a market segment is also every expensive.

    We subsequently developed a mobile development platform called RAMP that addresses a lot of the issues encountered and raised in the article. RAMP is focused on financial, secure applications (we have US NIST validation for our mobile security) and on extending companies existing products and services securely to their clients. Things like
    mobile banking, money transfer, account access etc

    We are not focused on the gaming or social media environment for example. We believe that different cross-platform mobile frameworks will emerge to facilitate different domains. So, instead of having a single general purpose cross-platform framework we believe that there will be several focused on different domains. HTML 5 can be considered
    as attempting to be the general purpose cross-platform framework, but we believe that for the majority of domains a focused framework would be a better fit.

    The largest benefit that cross-platform development platforms offer is one development effort for the supported devices.

    RAMP supports devices form feature through to smart phones, like Nokia, Blackberry Android, Motorola etc.

    Developers can evaluate the platform at: http://ramp.virtualmobiletech.com/

    Comment by Arno — 9 March 2010 @ 6:57 am


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