Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Smart Phone or Mobile Browser

[This post has been languishing for a month. I think it's time to post it's beginning.]

It seems that some people are expecting smart phones to evolve into what is effectively just a mobile browser, providing a "thin client" for web-based applications (eg. AJAX apps like Google Mail, etc.).

This sounds familiar to me -- I've been through this before, in the PC industry. So is it different this time? Let's take a closer look.


First, some history.

In the mid-nineties, when the Web was taking off, a number of companies saw the opportunity to make a revolutionary type of personal computer to replace the existing model of the PC (running Windows 3.1 back when this started). This type of computer was called the NC, short for Network Computer. It's greatest proponents were the Acorn/Oracle partnership, and Sun. The idea was that the NC would be a mediumly thin client (thicker than a dumb terminal, such as an X-Windows terminal, but thinner than a PC). Basically the NC would run apps natively, but they would be downloaded from the network, and data would reside on the network.

This is a very similar model to the new AJAX style web-based applications.

Of course, history tells us that this approach was a massive flop, and it killed Acorn, amongst any number of other companies. Since the winning technology could hardly be considered to have won through techical superiority (we're talking about Windows 95 and NT 3 here), it must have been the underlying architectures that had significant advantages and disadvantages.

Interestingly, I was in favour of the NC at the time, mostly because I was a dedicated Acorn user, and didn't want to see the most innovative PC company go under. This time I find myself "naturally" on the other side.

So why did the NC fail? Well, the answer's two-fold, but pretty simple:

  1. Implementing sophisticated applications in Java (the language of choice for NC's) was probably as easy as doing so for Windows (back then), but the results were vastly inferior. NC's back then were running 30MHz ARM CPUs or the like, and Java was just too heavy for this (or PC) hardware. PC applications were simply more responsive than Java app's.
  2. The network simply wasn't up to handling all these apps and associated data. I remember working in Novell KK (Japan) in the latter half of '94 when Mosaic and the Web were gathering steam, and we still only had a 64kbps ISDN line shared between the 200 or so staff there!

The burning question is whether things have changed enough so that these major issues are no longer severe enough to simply kill the approach. (And, for mobile, I think the answer is pretty clearly, "no", see Michael Mace's post here for some insights.)


So, what about Japan? Clearly their phones are mobile browsers, and not smart phones. Perhaps they provide an example of the future.

Yes, well Japan has always marched to the beat of a different drum. In the nineties, when the NC was being hyped, the PC was still rare amongst home users in Japan. Much more common were turnkey wordprocessors (a type of technology almost completely dead in the West at that time).

To really understand Japan, you would have to understand what they're actually doing with their mobile browsers. I have to confess that I don't know what, exactly, they're doing. But I'm fairly sure it's merely consuming content and creating trivial content, rather than generating sophisticated content, or doing sophisticated processing that on-device app's are so good at.

In addition, you need to be aware of the geographical character of Japan and other target markets. Japan is heavily urbanised, with around a quarter of the population in greater Tokyo. The rest of the population are scattered through densely settled valleys and plains, with almost unpopulated mountains between them. This makes it very easy to build a mobile network that covers almost everyone. (Especially given the population and relative size of the country.)

Compare Japan to Australia, which, despite being heavily urbanised, has the population density such that travelling a few hundred kilometres from the population centres will dump you into a sparsely populated (but still populated) vast land, almost impossible to network with mobile networks.

So Japan can (as usual) be viewed as a special case, and not an indicator of things to come.

Next post I'll look further at issues with browser-based applications on mobile devices, including:

  • Responsiveness (a common issue, partly addressed by technologies like AJAX)
  • Reliability (a problem for mobile devices that no longer really exists for desktops)
  • Privacy (a problem that no-one seems to be taking seriously, on any platform)


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