Don’t call me DOM

16 October 2008

Open/Proprietary/Standards in the Mobile Web industry – part 2

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(this is a second part of the write up of my talk on Open/Proprietary/Standards in the Mobile Web industry, which was presented with a set of slides)

The conclusion of my first part was that the Mobile Web industry, as the rest of the IT industry, is heading toward more openness.

But this whole question of being open vs closed shouldn’t hide the real challenge: what matters at the end of the day is the user, and while the user is certainly going to be more happy (in most cases) if she can get the amount of control she desires, what she really wants is that her bl**dy tool (be it a phone or computer) work!

I am a strong supporter of bringing the user at the core of the industry preoccupations; rather than thinking ourselves as the “information technologies” industry, I believe we should be the “human-computer interfaces” industry.

And among the many things that can make a user experience poor, the lack of interoperability between platforms is a fairly strong one: no matter how glad I am to have been using Linux for the past ten years, I am still helpless when I have to explain to my wife that we can’t use this tool on my computer or can’t view that video because it is not supported on Linux. Similarly, no matter how cool I think it is to be able to use the Web from my phone, there are still way too many times I have to explain that I can’t view this or that page because it doesn’t work on it.

And the source of these interoperability problems is well-known and particularly acute in the mobile industry: fragmentation. There are so many platforms and devices out there, that it is a real challenge to make them all work together. Wouldn’t the world be much more simple if we were all to use the same device with the same operating system and the same applications? It would, but it would also of course be much more boring, and at the end of the day, if we take the users’s point of view, what they want is to be able to choose what fit them the best, not what makes our industry’s life more simple.

The natural response to interoperability problems is in standardization; the Bible’s god stopped humanity from building its Babel tower by preventing them from understanding each other – humanity strikes back by developing common languages and interfaces through standardization. And the analogy of the Babel tower is a good one: each time we manage to create standards that allow to build a floor of the tower, we allows the next team to build a completely new floor based on a solid foundation – that tower will always go higher than the one of a team who doesn’t want to play with others.

And both these ideas of putting the user at center, and improving the interoperability of the Mobile Web through standards have been the funding concepts of the Mobile Web Initiative.

A good example of tools we have built to try and improve interoperability:

  • the Web Compatibility Test for Mobile Browsers highlights how the browser used to render it supports a set of 16 Web technologies, and serves as a driver for browser vendors to improve their conformance to standards – indeed, no browser passed it the first time we released it, and now a few of them do or are much closer to;
  • the mobileOK checker help Web developers create content that will work well on a wide range of mobile devices, by highlighting the technical points that might create user experience problems on phones

In terms of improving the user experience, the Mobile Web Initiative groups have been working on the whole content development chain to try and play a positive role:

Mobile Web Development chain and the MWI related specs

These are only the first steps, and W3C has many other technologies that will help bring greater interoperability and a better user experience on the Mobile Web; among them, the nascent work on a javascript geolocation API, the renewed interest on standardizing widgets, and the work on best practices for mobile Web applications are particularly promising.

As I mentioned in the first part of this, one of the difficulty that remains in this open environment that the Mobile Web is flourishing in, is the establishment of a good trust model; we are organizing a couple of workshops that hopefully will bring some light on that difficult problem:

  • a workshop on securing access to device features from the Web (such as GPS, cameras, addressbook), so that one can use powerful Web applications without compromising one’s data and privacy – the call for position papers to this workshop is open until October 30 2008;
  • a workshop on the future of social networking – I personally believe that social networks have a very important role to play in establishing a trust system, since their social aspects are mostly a quantification of the trust their users have between each other. Position papers for this workshop are accepted until November 20.

Picture of Dominique Hazael-MassieuxDominique Hazaël-Massieux (dom@w3.org) is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Staff; his interests cover a number of Web technologies, as well as the usage of open source software in a distributed work environment.