Wireless Wonders

No news, just comment about mobile phones and services, from a veteran practitioner...3G, GPRS, WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi, etc...

Friday, June 03, 2005

Screen scraping to my mobile...idea #62/100...

I have experienced many times the desire to access information on my mobile that is not available in a mobilised form. However, the information is available via The Web and is therefore, in principle, accessible via a mobile (e.g. in WAP format).

For example, my Blockbuster Online account contains various pieces of information that from time to time I have wanted to know whilst away from my desktop. This may not be a particularly compelling application, but it serves as an illustration for this discussion and idea.

However, I should first say that the phrase "compelling application" needs examination. I am inclined to think that the adoption of mobile data services is not about finding compelling applications. If only it were a lot easier to access various information sources via mobile devices, then users would slowly get used to the convenience of mobilised information and this would lead to a tipping point in mobile data adoption, similar to what happened with voice.

The future then is about building an information environment in which it is easy for information to flow from one device to another. In my view, this should be the real meaning of the market buzzword "seamless mobility". I have a slide in the seminar for my book that begins "Would the real seamlessness please stand up."

There is an obsession with seamless mobility in the context of multiple radio access technologies - WiFi, WiMax, 3G, GPRS, Bluetooth etc. Of course, multiple access technologies is an increasingly important aspect of mobile computing, but from a mass-user perspective this is just more techno-babble. Users are still stuck with more mundane issues like how the train timetable on their desktop is apparently inaccessible on their phone. A whacking great seam!

So, returning to the problem. On the Blockbuster site, I can see a list of videos currently allocated to me. This list is buried within a web page. However, this page doesn't display on my phone. Therefore, I should be able to select the data on the page that I'm interested in and scrape it off to my mobile. That's the idea. Simple!

Now, whenever I access that "page" on my mobile, I just get the data I'm interested in. Moreover, I could also select an option to have the data monitored for any updates (which could be via an RSS feed, but that's not important).

Ditto any information that I'm interested in. ..

After navigating a variety of web screens to find train times I need for daily travel to London (say), I scrape them onto my mobile.

I'm not going to discuss the possible routes to this solution technically, as there are programmers out there far more competent than I who should take this up. As I mentioned in my last post about Ajax, we should by now be thinking of models that make sense for mobile, instead of continuing with the one-dimensional approach that dominates the industry, which is that essentially mobiles are just tiny web browsers. This approach doesn't seem to be yielding much fruit.

The browser model is a publishing model. I think that the mobile environment would be much more effective if we implemented an effective subscription model. RSS is interesting in this regard, but it is really a publishing model made to look like a subscription one, because it relies on a programmer deciding on a set of information to publish as an RSS source. What I am discussing here is letting the user decide entirely what information they want to subscribe to, whether the information provider intended it, or not.

"Screen scraping" is one approach, although I am aware that it has problems if we think about how to implement it within the current WWW environment. However, don't get hung up on the details just yet - the concept is what matters. I'm convinced that clever programmers out there could make this concept work well. All of the technological ingredients we need are available - the progamming languages, the mark-up languages, the delivery protocols. The model is what matters. Of course, we could talk about RSS and Web Services, da-de-da, but "screen scraping" is a better end-user metaphor.

Let me make it plain.

I am looking at my Blockbuster page. I can see a list of information I want on my phone. I hover my house over that area and highlight the info I want. I right-click "send to mobile". I'm asked for a title. I type "My videos". My phone lights up and voila! There's a "page" called "My Videos". I can return to that page whenever I want in order to view the information, courtesy of Blockbuster's database, but not via their web page, nor via any mobilisation process that the Blockbuster people programmed for me (at least not overtly). I can also be notified of changes to the information.

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