Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.


So I'm procrastinating (I mean...erm....thinking) on some code for a talk I'm giving in a couple of days, and as usual, I wind up doing mental gymnastics on every topic but the one at hand when I'm staring down a deadline. This time, I can't get my head off of mobile apps.

At a conference a couple of weeks ago, I got to see a version of KHTML on a phone, and for the first time in a long while my interest in doing mobile app development has been rekindled. The Series60 Python port was good, but I think that this several orders of magnitude more important.

Back when J2ME as something new, I got to spending a summer trying to get phones to do enough crypto to pass themselves off as smart cards. Now, this shouldn't be hard, if only because most phones include actual smart cards. Problem is that the carriers force device manufacturers to seal off access to all of the interesting hardware on cell phones from apps running on them. We couldn't get access to the real crypto co-processors already embedded on the phones. These closed platform antics of carriers and operators are in part to enforce monopolistic control of the user base, in part to exert cartel-like control over the handset manufacturers, and in part to enforce monopolistic control of the upstart application and content authors who they need so desperately but can't bring themselves to treat as anything other parasites.

They're the phone company, after all.

While I can't say much more than that about the project, I can say that we were able to get SSL working from a phone in 2001 without hardware or OS-level software access. Which only served to teach me how utterly evil telcos are. With the proof-of-concept project done, it came time to ask ourselves how we'd get our app into the hands (literally) of people that could benefit from it. The stunningly bad answer was "you don't". At least not without lawyers, businessfolk, and a small mountain of cash. There are two major "platforms" for building apps that get delivered to phones: BREW and J2ME. Both suck.

Carriers who are sufficiently in bed with Qualcomm to have built CDMA networks are that much more likely to be enforcing BREW as their app delivery "solution". The system works something like this:

Now, admittedly, BREW is worst-case-scenario for mobile app deployment, but things are hardly much better over in J2ME-land. MIDP 1.0? MIDP 2.0? CLDC? KJava? How in the hell is anyone supposed to target a "platform" when there are so many permutations and versions of these castrated "profiles" with vendor-specific extensions hanging off the edges all over the place? It's not like Java is a forgiving environment when the right API isn't available at the right time. That wasn't part of the spec. Well, ok, to be fair, it wasn't part of any of the myriad applicable specs, not that you'd be able to find that out easily. And that's not even addressing getting the app onto the phone if the device supports some variety of J2ME. Carriers that ship J2ME-enabled handsets aren't somehow more enlightened when it comes to demanding their pound of proverbial flesh. They just don't have a unified system with which to extract it.

And that, in a nutshell, is why doing mobile phone development is the software equivalent of the life of Job. Just when you think it got bad, you look over and your cattle are dying of famine and the APIs you were counting on have withered on the vine of carrier apathy and manufacturer helplessness.

Which is why the web is our trojan horse (again). This is gonna sound like old news, but remember when there was this entrenched monopoly that controlled what kinds of apps could succeed (or be bought and then re-introduced) and which would be crushed under the fist of the almighty marketing dollar and vaporware announcement? The web routed around some part of that damage. Open Source did too, but it depends much more heavily on the concept of a liberated hardware platform, which is why RMS is fighting so darned hard to keep "trusted computing" out of the bootstrap of commodity computing devices via GPLv3. I don't agree with RMS most of the time, but I think his fundamental understanding of the problem regarding closed hardware and Free Software is correct.

Which is why the web is doubly important to mobile devices. Instead of being inert data, it turns out that the web has all of the characteristics of a programming environment that can succeed in the face of device foibles, carrier antics, and handset manufacturer impotence. WEP failed and the heir apparent is the web as we know it today.

If we can get the UI figured out.

I've been noodling a bit on the problem of "stackable" interfaces for mobile devices. It seems to me that for as good as the KHTML demo I saw was, it lacks the ability to easily build spatial or temporal associations with a piece of data in a page. The S60 KHTML makes it easy to relate pages to each other, but it's hard to scan a page for important information to dig into if everything is "below the fold" or if the page is zoomed out so far that you can really only make out visual landmarks. What we need is a way to promote things that are essentially "headlines" of the page into that spot in a remixed "folded" view of the page. This stack or list of "headlines" might represent Augment's outline view or a stack of cards with a fast "flip" function, but the content has to be the regular-old-web. It's one applications where I see micro-formats or a Dojo-style extra-attribute syntax as being essential. Instead of air-headed &lt:div> tags to separate things out such that CSS can have it's pretty way with the content, it would be much better if sections of a page which contained related data could be marked as such. The developer incentive to do this would be that page sections that do this would be "hoisted" into the stack whereas those that don't could be ignored by a browser (or script) that creates this sort of UI. This way, advertising content could be placed in the stack along with regular content, keeping everyone happy and still giving users a better search-and-drill experience than they currently have.

All while reducing carriers to the glorified purveyors of bandwidth that they should have been relegated to years ago. The web is our end-run. Our fulcrum.

I suspect we haven't even begun to see the start of the browser wars that will actually matter for most of the world's population. Add some limited local storage to a remixable, stackable web interface, throw in bluetooth or proximity networking and you have village-level networking. Negroponte's immoral gamble is likely to fail at the hands of good-old worse-is-better web tech. And the best part is that it starts with kicking the telcos in the groin here at home.

Either that, or I need to start getting more sleep.