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iPhone/Safari is the Mosaic of the Mobile Web

Really old folks like me remember a time before the web. And then a time when the web was an interesting technology. And then Mosaic, the browser which by virtue of (many people would argue) incorporating inline images in web pages kickstarted the web.

I think that in the wake of today’s announcements from Apple, the iPhone will be the equivalent of Mosaic for the mobile web.

Many web developers have been waiting a long time for the fabled mobile web to arrive. From WAP 1.0, we’ve been anticipating the web we can take everywhere, on mobile phones and similar devices.

Yes, mobiles, PSPs, specialized devices like SONY’s Mylo can all kinda do the web. But we’ve been waiting for a critical mass, a solid user base, and above all unified platform to make the promise a good business proposition.

A lot of people have been waiting the iPhone with extraordinary enthusiasm. Today Apple made two announcements which I think will have enormous impact on the future of the mobile web.

1. Webapps are the way for developers to write apps for the iPhone. But why that’s important is that they will run in Safari, the heart of which, Webkit, is an open source, highly standards compliant rendering engine, used not only in Safari, but in browsers like Nokia’s open source S60 platform.

2. Safari is now available on Windows (XP and Vista), so whether your primary platform for development is Mac or Windows (with Linux you aren’t quite out of luck, as KHTML shares a lot of common functionality at its core with Safari), you have a standards compliant browser that will also allow you to target the iPhone.

Now, with over a billion mobile phones, a sizeable percentage of which do have some kind of web support, why will a few million iPhones, perhaps a percent or two of all such possible devices, make any kind of difference?

One of the biggest drawbacks to mobile web adoption has been data cost. Pricing for data on a handset has typically been ridiculously expensive, metred by the byte, and very opaquely priced. As a consequence, people simply don’t think about using data based or web services.
The other drawback is that the hand held web interface is an utterly different paradigm from the web most people are familiar with – on their computer. When you don’t know what its going to cost you, are you going to experiment, play, learn? I think it’s unlikely.

The iPhone addresses both these.

The iPhone has wifi enabled, and so when you have access to a wifi network, you can use the real web, for free, on a device designed for that purpose, rather than having to use your mobile network. If you know how the mobile market works in the US, where features like bluetooth are routinely disabled in devices due to the carriers, you’ll perhaps see why Apple is so important here – few others would have the clout to achieve this.

So, while the iPhone will account for a tiny percentage of phone users, I’d argue that very quickly, it will account for a significant percentage of all mobile web users. And because its web interface is very similar to the familiar PC web interface, with a largish high resolution screen, users will already be familiar with the basic paradigm, and so much more likely to play around with it. And, very importantly, developers will find it much easier to design and test web content and apps for the device, even without getting their hands on an iPhone, because it’s running Safari.

I don’t think Apple will necessarily own the mobile web, as they do the mobile music space, but I think they have invented what the mobile web will look like. Anyone who follows their suit, and many will, will make a web experience that is very similar.

Safari on the iPhone is the Mosaic of the mobile web.

One of the things we really focussed on this year with content for the conference was the mobile web, which ties in well with the excitement that we think the next few months will see in relation to the mobile web. We are privileged to have one of the real Mobile Web design and development gurus, Brian Fling speaking at the conference on “Web 2.0 + Mobile 2.0”, and delivering a full day workshop Mobile web design and development – Everything you need to know about creating sites for the mobile web from start to finish.

[tags]webkit, iphone, safari, web2.0, mobile web[/tags]

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I had an absolute blast, learnt so much, and met so many great people

Carmen Chung Software engineer, Valiant Finance