Wireless Wonders

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

Monday, January 23, 2006

AJAX scours again...

A while back, I blogged about using AJAX as a possible solution to various mobile usability problems with browsing. Essentially, all it does is improve the user-interaction experience when using a browser by allowing new data to be uploaded into the "web page" rather than the browser. It is really at its most powerful when this occurs "ahead" of the user asking for the info. For example, I spend a few moments looking at a list of nearest cafes in Bond Street, during which time the web-page (via it's little hidden "AJAX -program") has already uploaded the next set of results. Then, as soon as I hit the "next" link in the browser, bang! Suddenly the next 10 cafes appear with hardly any delay. It almost seems like magic, which, of course, technology is to the uninitiated.

This minimal delay is not only because the "AJAX program" pre-fetched the data (an old trick in computer science that's been used for decades in micro-processors), but also because all it did fetch was the data, not an entire web page. The new data is just "squirted" into the web page already sitting in the browser.

For a while, having an "AJAX solution" in your business plan, or website, was a vogue thing to do. Now, according to Ajit Jaoker, whom I know well, having watched him enter the industry and become an established personality, an entire business model can be built around AJAX. Not only that, but said business model can possibly save the "mobile data industry" from its own fractured beginnings, to which O2 now seem to be faithfully contributing via their weird I-Mode project. Sorry O2, but we haven't forgiven your "surf the mobile web" campaign. We are still waiting...

I'm not saying that I disagree with Ajit's hypothesis. It's not as if an entire "business model" can't be based around a piece of technology. After all, HTTP/HTML is a case in point. There would be no "online" anything without this marvel, never mind a business model. For some time, I have suspected that we are missing a vital link in the "mobile online" world. What we often fail to recognise is that the most critical departure that HTTP/HTML made from established norms in the PC world was the introduction of a universal client, called the browser. Any type of data was suddenly accessible via one program. Previously, we needed a program to view word processing docs, another to view spreadsheets, another to view database x, y and z...and so on.

However, there are a whole host of reasons why mobile phones have usability problems. In my book (link below), I include an extensive comparison between browsing on a desktop and browsing on a mobile. AJAX only addresses a few of the problems, assuming that it can be implemented well on a mobile in the first place. I can well imagine that the link speed (and delay) and device processing power will not be up to the job in many cases. It's no coincidence that many mobiles support only a limited (if any) set of stylesheet features that can make the kinds of interfaces that make AJAX-updated-displays look nice and run well. It takes substantial processing power to compute (x,y) positioned widgets on a screen. It could be done, but probably requires dedicated hardware, like the sort iPod Nano must surely use to display photos as quick as you can "turn" the touch wheel.

Having said all that, it has been my hunch for some time that instead of the a "universal client" to fuel a mobile data tipping point, assuming that's possible with the current UI limitations, that a "universal API" will be more likely. I have my own ideas what that might be, and it is a much broader connectivity framework than just web pages.

OK, so I actually do disagree with a lot of Ajit's claims for AJAX, but one in particular caught my attention - the claim that AJAX solves the "porting problem". Unfortunately, the example given doesn't work for me, which is how many different versions of a single mobile game must be developed to run on the umpteen hundred handsets out there. First off, this isn't an apples-apples comparison, as you can't really make games with AJAX. But, I think that the problem here is that the "convergence" model is all wrong in this case, namely that the mobile phone as we have come to adore it - i.e. a style for everyman and his dog - is not the best place to stick mobile games. It might be an obvious place to stick mobile games, but not the best place, as it isn't a standard platform for games. It's a standard platform for talking and texting. A Sony PSP is a good place to stick games, or a Gameboy, mostly because they are one of only a few platforms to write games for - no fractured market here.

Is there a future for "mobilised" games consoles? I have often been laughed at for suggesting that that there might be, but the joke is the notion of having to carry around a device so much obviously larger than a mobile phone (which, for most of their lives, have been shrinking). Kids already seem to do this no problem, so I'm not that worried. Interestingly, multiplayer gaming is increasing in popularity with the addition of voice, which is easy to implement with a mobilised games machine. I think that multiplayer gaming will become compelling, which it is more likely to do with all the attention that gaming is now receiving in an effort to make it more mainstream entertainment, less spotty geeky hobby stuff.

Personally, I just think we need bigger pockets, but no one seems to be taking me seriously. Or, perhaps we all need handbags, notwithstanding the problem of hearing your mobile in your handbag.

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