iPhone and Future of Mobile Web Application Development

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Can iPhone applications be described as accessible, either now or in the future?

Last December, I blogged about T-on-Time, the contest entry to the MassDOT’s Developer Contest. Although I was disappointed T-on-Time didn’t win, the winners, MassTransit¬† and OpenMBTA deserved it. Both of these applications were wide in scope, and comprehensive in the MassDOT services they covered (commuter rail, MBTA, bus, boat etc.). They were beautiful looking. They worked well.

In comparison, T-on-Time (my entry) focused only on the commuter rail, and was just a smaller undertaking at all levels. T-on-Time was of high quality and bug free. However, I estimated T-on-Time to have taken about 100 hours (including learning Adobe AIR), while the other apps were easily in the 400+ hr range.massdot

Since then I’ve continued to use T-on-Time every time I use the rail. It’s prevented me from missing my train a number of times (without overcompensating and wasting work time by arriving 10 minutes early to the station every day). I am satisfied the bugs are out of it.

A few weeks ago, MassDOT has announced a new contest. The rules are completely different this time, and the contest is focused around the real-time data feeds. A number of hardware based solutions (signs, LEDs) are expected c/o the MIT Hackathon which preceded it.

Unfortunately, I won’t be submitting to the “real-time” contest. The time line (1 month from announcement to submission) was ridiculously short!

What is an “app”?

One “criticism” I have regarding the first contest, is that the contest winners were not “open” or accessible in any way. Since the contest was ostensibly about openness of data, I assumed that the accessibility criteria would be high on the list. The two winning applications, MassTransit and OpenMBTA, should have been judged low in those requirements. As a Blackberry user, I wasn’t even able to size up the winners, because you needed an iPhone to even see them. Sort of makes one feel like an outsider.

The word “app”, which was used in the contest terms, and defined to be an application for any platform, seemed to mean “any iPhone application”. I went back to re-read the rules – was all my work wasted because I mis-read the contest rules? (I had not.)

Since November, I payed an expensive Verizon cancellation fee and bought my wife an iPhone for Christmas. That’s because I know the iPhone is going to be a player in the future, and as a web developer, I need to be involved with it. Like me, a lot of people went out this Christmas and bought an iPhone.

The big question is whether the iPhone’s (and it’s applications) will be dominant enough in future markets to reach the majority of people in this country. In Nov 2009 I wasn’t ready to throw all my eggs in the iPhone basket to develop T-on-Time. This was largely because I didn’t want to bother with learning Objective-C, and getting pulled into the all-encompassing “Mac thing”. Instead, I chose small, desktop “apps” with Adobe Air, using the web technologies I already knew (albeit without any present possibility of mobile support).

Yet, still I would argue that iPhone apps are not “accessible” now, except for a very small portion of the population who own iPhones. This is particularly true for public agencies such as the MasssDOT which is continually working with a lowest common denominator, in terms of the public having high-tech gadgets available to them.

But in 2009 it seemed that all the edgiest and hippest developers were developing for the iPhone. It felt as if the desktop was passe – even though the app I had developed had a footprint which could easily fit on a mobile device. It was close, but not quite ready for mobile.

And so I was unsure back then. It’s March. 2010, I am staying the course.

Lately, cool doesn’t feel as cool anymore.

First, I started noticing a lot of articles like this:

7 Reasons Why Developers are Deserting iPhone Apps (Site Point)

And then I started reading sites like nerdvittles.com – an outstanding blog, by the way. (It disses iPhone.)

And I just don’t think iPhone/AppStore is going to be the dominant mobile platform in the future. It certainly will not be adapted by enough people to be considered accessible any time soon. In regards to web and application development, I believe something like Adobe AIR will be the unifying technology during this period of rapid change and an explosion of competing platforms. Here’s why I believe this:

  • the mobile phone business is exploding with a diversity of protocols, languages, personalities, technologies.
  • it’s easier to clone a smaller device than a big device like a desktop, and everything is easier to knock off. Everything in the mobile device space moves faster.
  • the competitors are good, and they will carve out niches in the market. Think HTC, Palm, Motorola, Nexus.
  • Apple has not chosen an open OS or application platform, and this is a problem. These smaller competitors will look to openness as their advantage. Think about choosing your carrier, tethering your connection to your laptop, being able to automatically switch to VOIP when you are on wireless spot to reduce your phone bill. Openness lets you do this

If you don’t think openness is a big deal, just check out how many people are buying the Palm today because you aren’t tied to a service plan. It’s a much less sophisticated platform than iPhone, but openness is being used as a competitive edge against iPhone. Besides who needs all those fancy sliders and faders to make a simple phone call anyhow?

At the same time, the battle over rich media (audio and video) on the Internet has become more intense. Apple, released the iPad – another device without Flash. It’s absence is starting to become more than a bit annoying. I believe Apple is hoping to shift web developers to the HTML5 canvas (vector based drawing) and video support, and away from Flash. Apple is probably smart enough to know this can’t be done all at once – it will be an incremental shift, followed by a tidal wave if enough early adopters get on board. Apple should not underestimate the weight (and cost) of all the work that developers have done on Flash in the past 10 years or so.

Summary?

I’d like to thank everyone involved in the MassDOT effort. I concur with David’s post today,¬† to quote “It’s certainly proof that just knowing where a bus might be, and not
standing around in the cold with no certainty as to whether you’ll ever be picked up or not, improves the public transport experience to an immense degree. Thanks again for putting it together.”

I really hope Adobe Air does get “picked up” by the mobile phones. It’s the ideal platform for mobile development because it unifies all the mobile environments around standard XHTML/CSS/Javascript web development languages and technologies. With AIR your web site can be your “app”- very little change is needed. Who knows, if AIR does win out in the future, then T-on-Time will just start working on mobile devices! I’ll keep my fingers crossed ;).

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Posted in Hybrid Apps, IOS App Development

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