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Is Write Once Run Anywhere Ever Going to Be a Reality?

Development Challenge Remains the Same

The interest in mobile applications started towards the end of last millennium! Since then, as the saying goes, lot of water has flown under the bridge. The technology scenario has changed beyond recognition. None of the platforms which are popular today was in existence when we started our mobile journey. In fact, if you look back, you will find that every three years there is a churn in among the popular platforms. One of the top 3 popular mobile platforms will lose out to an upstart and a new leader also emerges.

Three Year Technology Churn Cycle
Three years back we were still talking about 5 platforms (iPhone, RIM, Symbian, Windows and JME) apart from mobile web. Though iPhones had started becoming popular, features phones accounted for majority of the market. In the enterprise Blackberry (RIM) still ruled. Outside the US, Symbian based Nokia devices were by far the most popular devices. Android was still in the realm of emerging technologies with interesting possibilities but no market share. HTML5 was something that was expected to happen somewhere in the distant future. iPad simply did not exist!

Fast forward three year to now. Android has emerged from nowhere to become the top selling handset in the US. Nokia has thrown in the towel and decided to exit from the OS game (abandoning both Symbian & MeeGo) and has tied up with Microsoft for all future devices. RIM is tottering and fast losing its market share. Windows Mobile is almost dead; long live Windows Phone. HTML5 is being adopted by everybody for mobile devices much ahead of the release of the formal standard which will take many more years to be formally released. Even Adobe has decided to abandon Flash for mobile and adopt HTML5. All platform providers like handset manufacturer, operating system providers and mobile service provider have created their own app store. Some of them are hugely successful while others barely managing to survive.

The Development Challenge Remains the Same
Though, in the last 10 years, technology has changed beyond recognition the main challenge has remained the same. It has been, currently is and expected to be in the foreseeable future remains to be platform fragmentation. That means, every enterprise which plans to develop mobile application has to figure out a way of building application for multiple platforms and minimize the overhead of doing so. Maintaining multiple code based, that to in different programming language, has always been complicated and expensive proposition.

There have been many attempts to create a WORA platform but none has really succeeded. WORA stands for Write Once Run Anywhere. Some progress was made in the pre iPhone era where platforms were getting developed which could support majority of the feature phones. It tackled the challenge of different screen size and varying user interaction standard reasonably well.

However the popularity of smart phones like iPhone and Android ensured that such tools are no longer usable. First reason is that Apple refused to allow any application which uses a runtime engine like Flash. Second the reason is the sea difference between the style of user interface between a feature phone and a touch based smart phone. It was simply impossible to create an interface which will look good on a smart phone and run in a feature phone.

Other option has always been to stick only to a mobile website and not build any native application. Though, a mobile website also has to take care of the variation of browser and screen size, the challenge is still manageable. However, three major drawback of a mobile website is:

  1. They could not access or take advantage of the native mobile capability like camera,
  2. An internet connectivity is a must for the applications to run, and
  3. They did not have the look and feel of the native application, especially on the iPhone

Therefore, every enterprise faced a dilemma and depending on the business requirement some tradeoff had to be made.

The Rise of the Hybrid Application
This challenge has led to a new class of application which is called the hybrid application. The core idea is to create a native application which has screen with an embedded browser instance. Now, standard mobile web pages could be rendered in that browser instance.

There are techniques available for the web page instantiated in the browser control to interact with the parent application. There are techniques available to package the web page along with the application. With this, the challenge of accessing the native mobile features and the challenge of offline working is resolved. The challenge of making the application look like a native application can be handled through suitable HTML, CSS and JavaScript programming.

Several platforms have evolved to make the task of creating hybrid application simpler. However, this technology is still evolving and need s to stabilize. There are issues around performance and the robustness of the browser control.

Is the Tablet Same as Smartphone?
The development environment for the smartphone and the tablet is similar. iPhone and iPad share the same development platform and language. Same is true for the Android based devices. However, the usage pattern clearly demarcates them as two different classes of device.

An application written for a smartphone with minor modification will work on a tablet but it would not be optimized for the tablet. Larger screen size implies that the more content can be presented to the user and the user interaction can be much richer. Consequently, many applications which could be inconvenient to use on a smartphone becomes very usable on a tablet. There are many candidate applications for a tablet but for an enterprise BI applications and enterprise dashboard tops the list.

Where Will the Next Disruption Come From?
History has taught us that it is always very difficult to predict when and where the next technology disruption will come from. However, it is also the favorite pastime of all technology analysts to make such predictions. Before iPhone was launched, did anybody make a prediction that within a short period of 4 years smartphones based of touch screens will become the de-facto standard? Before iPad was launched did anybody predict that within two years tablets will emerge as a separate class of computing device?

Here are three possibilities:

  1. Tablet usage expands to significantly eat into the desktop and laptop usage
  2. Voice technology becomes robust and usable enough to offer a new dimension to user interface design
  3. The Metro UI from Microsoft effectively manages to create a uniform container for application to run in smartphone, tablet and desktop

If any one of the three possibilities becomes a reality there will be huge demand for new and revamped applications.

Only point that we need to keep in mind is that all those applications will be UI centric – are you working on your UI skills?

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Udayan Banerjee

Udayan Banerjee is CTO at NIIT Technologies Ltd, an IT industry veteran with more than 30 years' experience. He blogs at http://setandbma.wordpress.com.
The blog focuses on emerging technologies like cloud computing, mobile computing, social media aka web 2.0 etc. It also contains stuff about agile methodology and trends in architecture. It is a world view seen through the lens of a software service provider based out of Bangalore and serving clients across the world. The focus is mostly on...

  • Keep the hype out and project a realistic picture
  • Uncover trends not very apparent
  • Draw conclusion from real life experience
  • Point out fallacy & discrepancy when I see them
  • Talk about trends which I find interesting
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