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Real-World AJAX Book Preview: The Mobile Application Value Chain

Real-World AJAX Book Preview: The Mobile Application Value Chain

This content is reprinted from Real-World AJAX: Secrets of the Masters published by SYS-CON Books. To order the entire book now along with companion DVDs for the special pre-order price, click here for more information. Aimed at everyone from enterprise developers to self-taught scripters, Real-World AJAX: Secrets of the Masters is the perfect book for anyone who wants to start developing AJAX applications.

The Mobile Application Value Chain

Content Owners: Content owners include players like broadcasters (TV and radio), news agencies, publishers, entertainment companies (movies, music, and entertainment), and rights owner companies (music rights, sports rights, and general showbiz agents). Unlike the Internet, the general perception of the mobile Internet is that content isn't free. Content owners own the rights or represent copyright owners. Content owners believe that "Content is king."

Service Providers/Aggregators: Service providers act as aggregators in the market. A service provider can be a mobile operator or an independent portal. They are concerned with billing and customer support. They can be customer-facing. They believe in high volumes ("Pile 'em high - sell em cheap") and can work on a revenue-share model but prefer upfront payments.

Mobile Operators: Mobile network operators actually manage the physical network and in some cases also fulfill the aggregator role. Examples of mobile network operators include T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and NTT DoCoMo. The mobile operators have a direct relationship with customers and influence the whole value chain.

Device Makers: Device makers are often the first physical point of interaction with the customer. Examples of device manufacturers are Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and Samsung. They can be strong brands. Device makers are trying to own a larger share of the value chain by becoming portals. For example, Club Nokia (www.nokia.co.uk/clubnokia).

End Users: The end user is the actual consumer of content and pays for the content. He defines market demand.

Types of Mobile Data Applications
We've seen how data gets to devices. Once the data arrives on the device, we need applications to process it and interact with the user.

There are two principal ways to categorize mobile applications: browsing applications and downloading applications. There are others like messaging applications, SIM applications, and embedded applications but a vast majority of the applications we see today fall under downloading or browsing applications.

Browsing Applications
Browsing applications are conceptually the same as browsing on the Web but take into account limitations that are unique to mobility like small device sizes. Similar to the Web, the service is accessed through a microbrowser that uses a URL to locate a service on a wireless Web server. The client is capable of little or no processing.

Downloading Applications (Smart Client Applications)
In contrast to browsing applications, downloading applications are downloaded first and installed on the client device. The application then runs locally on the device.

Unlike browsing apps, a downloaded or smart client application doesn't have to be connected to the network when it runs. Downloading applications are also called smart client applications because the client (i.e., the mobile device) is capable of some processing and/or some persistent storage (caching). Currently, most Java-based games are downloaded applications, in other words, they are downloaded to the client, require some processing to be done on the client, and don't always have to be connected to the network. Enterprise mobile applications such as sales force automation are also examples of smart client applications.

Resurgence of the Browsing Model

Problems Facing the Industry Today
Currently downloaded applications are more prevalent than browsing applications. While downloaded applications such as games are popular, they suffer drawbacks. These include:

Problem One: Market Fragmentation
Downloaded applications tend to fragment easily due to different local implementations by mobile operators and device manufactures.

Problem Two: Porting Woes
Related to market fragmentation, there's an issue with porting applications. Besides different implementations of the same software on different devices, the localized application has to support varying screen sizes and device capabilities. So writing the application once and porting it across various devices is very expensive.

Problem Three: Application Distribution Without Walls
Also related to the issue of fragmentation is the problem of application distribution. The greater the market fragmentation, the greater the difficulty in gaining critical mass and the benefits gained from the network effect.

Browsing Offers Some Solutions But Has Its Own Issues

In contrast to the fragmentation seen on the mobile Web, the Web is relatively less fragmented because the browser is the lowest level of abstraction. While browsers are fragmented to a degree (think Mozilla, Opera, Internet Explorer), there are still tens of browsers to contend with as opposed to literally the hundreds of combinations required to overcome the issues of application porting.

It follows that mobile browsing applications could potentially alleviate some of the issues discussed above. The sheer momentum and pervasive nature of the Web make it a natural choice on the mobile Internet.

However, while browsing applications can solve some of the problems, they introduce problems of their own. Let's consider a hypothetical question: Can we develop all mobile applications using browser technology?

In the PC/Internet world, the browser is fast becoming the universal client. However, there's a crucial difference between the PC world and the browser world.

In the PC world, we need one type of program to run a specific type of application (Word to view Word documents, Excel to view spreadsheets, and so on). In contrast we can use the browser to view any type of application (i.e., one client for many applications). This makes applications development much more optimal and less susceptible to software running on the client (in this case, the PC).

But can all mobile applications be implemented using browsing technology? After all, the browser works well on the PC as a universal client, why not on the mobile device? A corollary to this question could be:

  1. When would you be forced to develop an application on a mobile device that isn't run through a browser?
  2. And are there some fundamental differences with browsing on a mobile device versus browsing on the Web?
Let's consider the second point first. To understand the differences between browsing on the Web and browsing on a mobile device, we have to consider factors such as:
  • Intermittent connections - unlike the Web, the wireless network connection is relatively unstable and is affected by factors such as coverage (you lose the connection in a tunnel).
  • Bandwidth limitations - for example, even when 3G coverage is available, the actual bandwidth is far less.
  • The need for data storage on the client - if the device has no (or little) local storage, all the data has to be downloaded every time. This isn't optimal given intermittent and expensive bandwidth.
  • Finally, and most importantly, a local application provides a richer user experience, especially for applications such as games.
There are other factors such as limited user input capabilities and screen sizes. Some of these factors are getting better (for instance, coverage black spots are decreasing) but the overall user experience remains one of the most important factors.

The answer to our hypothetical question is "No, we can't develop all mobile applications only with the browser." However, as we'll discuss below, the architecture of browsing applications is changing and the distinctions between the browsing and downloading applications aren't as clear-cut as before.

This is causing a resurgence of the browsing model because of the capabilities of AJAX and the creation of widgets using AJAX.

This content is reprinted from Real-World AJAX: Secrets of the Masters published by SYS-CON Books. To order the entire book now along with companion DVDs, click here to order.

More Stories By Ajit Jaokar

Ajit Jaokar is the author of the book 'Mobile Web 2.0' and is also a member of the Web2.0 workgroup. Currently, he plays an advisory role to a number of mobile start-ups in the UK and Scandinavia. He also works with the government and trade missions of a number of countries including South Korea and Ireland. He is a regular speaker at SYS-CON events including AJAXWorld Conference & Expo.

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