James Rosewell writes:
I arrived at Imperial College for an oversubscribed Over The Air 2010 not really knowing what to expect but totally open-minded. I found innovation, ideas and inspiration.
The introductory keynote from Aral Balkan, creator of Feathers, was a timely reminder to all the geeks present that the User 'Experience' is what really matters and everything else is secondary. Technology solutions have to be reliable, functional and then ultimately delight the user to be successful. It’s not enough to be purely functional. Consideration needs to be given to other media that will be used to interact with the application as mobile applications rarely work in isolation. Twitter, eBay and banking are all good examples, offering both desktop and mobile interfaces and, in the case of banking, call centres and high street banks. The tendency towards mash-ups and API-based applications place key components of performance and usability outside the developers direct control. The inherently unreliable nature of mobile communications provides another complication to be managed in the form of multiple failure scenarios. These potentially weak links need to be given careful thought. Ultimately developers and designers need to consider far more factors than ever before and, if they don’t, disappointment may well await. Brian Fling of pinchzoom.com delved into more detail during his workshop on mobile design. It seems clear 'best practice' has yet to be defined and even the most cutting edge designers haven’t standardised on 'the right way'. This is indeed an exciting time for those wishing to steer and shape the future of the mobile application.
Top billing was given on the second day to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, father of the internet and icon for many of those present. His key note concerned the Semantic Web, freeing data to be accessed, related and updated without constraint using a five star rating system for accessibility. Linking the kind of information found in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to form a more complete profile of an individual, or exposing similar data from different sources such as libraries enabling their catalogues to be searched as one entity, seem relevant examples. The technical detail was high and I suspect many present struggled to keep up. More detail of the problem being solved may well have aided understanding. If I understood correctly, the concepts involved will enable the type of single solution operated by Tom Cruise in Minority Report, rapidly identifying and navigating between related data which at extremes are completely unrelated. Whilst all agreed with the concept, there will continue to be much debate over the methods used and related issues such as privacy.
Up to 6 workshops were running in parallel, enabling those unfamiliar with aspects of emerging technology to improve their understand or participating in interesting debates.
Bruce Lawson’s explanation of much hyped HTML 5 and related technologies left me thinking that there isn’t really anything new around the corner. HTML 5 will make the web work that little bit more efficiently, which is nice but not life changing. Vladimir Katandjev of Ericsson Labs provided an interesting insight into the future of communication between applications, demonstrated via a web page enabling a picture to be drawn on an iPad and then displayed on web browsers running on other devices using only browser based technologies. However issues of compatibility between browsers were touched on and there is 'no one size fits all' technology standard. Businesses shouldn’t jump in feet first implementing these new technologies unless they’re prepared to make further changes in the future when new browsers on both desktop and mobile devices break their innovative sexy web site feature. I couldn’t help feeling a general background of frustration concerning the speed and transparency associated with the work of standards bodies such as W3C.
In Paul Foster of Microsoft’s demonstration of Windows Phone 7, he showed a product that will be equally at home as a gaming platform or serving corporate applications. In contrast to the Android workshops which were standing room only, Paul’s presentation was poorly attended, which was a shame given the quality of the presentation. This should serve as a reminder that no matter how much Microsoft thinks it’s burying the mobile competition, mobile technologists aren’t interested at the moment. Further it remains to be seen how Microsoft will differentiate the wildly different uses of Xbox style gaming and corporate ERP platform, for example. Even Apple haven’t usurped BlackBerry as the enterprise phone of choice, and the new Blackberry OS is pretty bad.
PayPal demonstrated how their new offering PayPal X at www.x.com [Ed: what a domain name!] provides payment solutions for retailers on mobile. The service doesn’t compete with Apple’s as digital content purchase is not allowed. A full interview with Anthony Hicks of PayPal is provided in my podcast from Friday.
Workshops explaining how to create mobile applications were well attended. The overriding commercial message is it’s impossible to make enough money to pay your mortgage from mobile applications unless you’re paid by the day to create them for someone else who’s most likely doing it for marketing purposes - or are making games. Many of the people I spoke to seemed to fall into this latter category.
I’ve never been to a “Hackathon” before, it was wonderful. The brief from Matthew Cashmore was to “create cool [stuff]”. 26 teams of developers set out at 10am Friday to fulfil this objective by 2pm Saturday afternoon. Working mobile applications were demonstrated including;
• enabling reporting of potholes in the road to a local council with two clicks of a button on your mobile,
• 'GeoHunt', offering a fun way to explore cities with augmented reality,
• showing relevant Freecycle items on a map,
• displaying Android wallpaper pictures un-obscured by icons, and
• checking traffic conditions.
In one case the developed application had already received 400 downloads from the Android Marketplace by 2pm Saturday.
An application called Lobster which beeps like an Oyster card scanner when activated, enabling potentially 'free' bus travel in London for the bold and hard-up, was received with cheers.
The application with the greatest immediate commercial potential was from Paul Johnston of Padajo and involved the use of augmented reality to enable festival goers to locate their friends. Red dots appears over the camera image indicating in what direction and how far away your friends are located. Given the UK Mobile Network’s focus on marketing at festivals and to festival goers, this seems a great application to white label and licence.
Cool stuff in the physical world involved a Lego robot connected to an iPhone that moved towards a face in the field of view. Most spectacular was the use of tilt sensors in iPhones and iPads with WiFi to control model cars and a Helicopter . Impressively, a camera within the model displayed a real-time video image on the iPad or iPhone.
The organisers from Mobile Monday, including Dan Appelquist, Matthew Cashmore, Helen Keegan and Jo Rabin to name but four, have worked hard to create such a compelling and interesting event. Many challenges were faced and overcome in getting here and all involved should deservedly take credit and be proud of the event they’ve made happen. I hope they get the recognition and reward they deserve. In creating OTA they’ve gathered some of the most influential technologists in the mobile industry in one place for two days to further their passion. The debates and opinions formed here, and events like it, will impact the rest of the industry.
Given the potential success or failure of current key mobile industry initiatives are so dependent on technologists understanding and advocating them, I’m surprised more sponsors were not present. In particular Limo, MeeGo and the Wholesale Application Community (WAC) stood out by their official absence. Surely any organisation seriously needing applications for launch would at least try to get grass roots developers, designers and technologists onboard. Is their absence due to a lack of knowledge about such events, a focus on 'big' partners providing the answers, lack of budget or because they just don’t care? Whatever the reason, if they’re not able to engage and communicate at events like Over the Air, they’ll be missing a huge opportunity to influence critical opinion forms, evangelists and early adopters. The number of Android based devices being used and 'standing room only' workshops on Android should provide sufficient indication of how quickly technologists have embraced a new platform. Apple were not the only fruit.
Fragmentation of device capability seems to be the overriding problem facing the mobile application industry. Popular opinion suggests a simple iPhone application extending an existing web presence will cost around $20k. Android versions would be twice this and Blackberry over 3 times more. A site targeting all three devices will need an initial budget of at least $120k just to target three platforms. This ignores Microsoft who may well become a fourth must-have platform. A mobile web application will cost a fraction of this but will be technically incapable of achieving the high standards set by iPhone and increasingly expected by consumers. The mobile industry may well have subconsciously over-promised. Businesses will face hard decisions concerning what they want and what they can afford. The sooner the mobile industry can address the gap and provide iPhone functionality within the browser at a fraction of the development cost and effort, the better for everyone. However I’m not confident this is going to happen any time soon, which will only serve to benefit Apple further.