Mobile Widgets – a primer

This is the first in a series we will be writing over the next few weeks, introducing Mobile Widgets, the different platforms, and why we think they could very well be the future of mobile applications. This article is the primer, an introduction if you will.

Today…

…there are two major and well accepted ways to deliver mobile content to the end consumer. Native applications and the mobile web.

A native mobile application is an application that is installed and runs on the phone, allowing the user to have access to phone functionality such as GPS, contacts, camera, accelerometer, etc. These applications have robust features and tend to work and feel as if they are part of the phone. The challenge here is that they are platform specific. Meaning; if you’ve built your application for the iPhone, you’ll have to re-build it for Android, Blackberry, Symbian, etc. if you want to be able to deliver it across multiple platforms.

The mobile web refers to building a website that is easily accessible to mobile devices. Meaning that it sizes correctly to the mobile device accessing it and delivers it’s content in such a way as to make it easily consumed on the reduced screen real estate available on a mobile device. Many developers are adopting this approach because it allows users on different mobile platforms to access their content. The drawback with this approach is that a mobile website does not have access the same breadth of phone functionality that a native application has access to. Yes, some of the newer mobile web browsers will give websites the ability to retrieve GPS information from the mobile device accessing them (the user has to explicitly approve this), but that is about all they get. HTML 5 is also allowing for much more complex applications to be written (see the Google Voice mobile application).

I’m here to tell you that there is another option! Mobile Widgets have entered the scene and we believe they will change the mobile application development landscape.

What are Mobile Widgets?

Simply put, mobile widgets are mobile applications that are written using web technology (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) and have access, through a common API, to pretty much all of the mobile phone’s native functions (very much like the native applications mentioned earlier). These mobile widgets are downloaded and installed on a phone the same way native applications are, but since they run on top of common Web Runtime which implements the W3C Technical Recommendation for widgets and then some, it makes them cross platform compatible. That’s right, you can now build your application once and deploy it to multiple platforms. Here is another article on W3C widgets for your enjoyment.

Sounds too good to be true…

It is too good to be true! The above statement is where mobile widgets want and should be. However, much like in the rest of the mobile market, there is fragmentation! Multiple run times, that don’t work exactly the same way and which are not supported to the same extent on all mobile devices that are advertised to support mobile widgets. However, even with those limitations in mind and the platforms being in their infancy (i.e. most are still in Beta), mobile widgets will allow you to, at the very least, re-use a very large percentage of your applications as you port them to different platforms!

The players

There are several big players working hard at trying to bring mobile widgets to a mobile device near you. There is an estimated 1 billion hand held devices in the wild today that will be able to support mobile widgets, compared to the 60 or so million iPhones out there. This number, I’m sure, is making mobile widgets attractive to many. Here are the players involved today (if you know of any that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to leave a comment).

JIL.org is short for the Joint Innovation Lab; a collaborative effort by Vodafone, Verizon, China Mobile, and SOFTBANK. These large network providers have also teamed up with the following hardware manufactures; RIM (Blackberry), Samsung, Sharp, LG, Dopod, Nokia (supported through a Vodafone runtime installed on the S60 v3 and v5 OS). JIL has created a Mobile Widget API that allows for great access to native phone functionality such as calendar, contacts, camera, accelerometer, local storage, and many more.

Nokia has had widgets for quite a while now. Their widgets run under the Nokia Web Runtime (WRT) and although they are different from JIL, they are remarkably similar as well. Nokia might have fallen behind in sales here in North America, but they still have the largest market penetration across the globe!

RIM, LG,  and Samsung have each published their own widget implementations, even though they will be supporting JIL. This is a little confusing to us, but then again, no one said this market is very clear to begin with. RIMs implementation of their own native widgets is especially frustrating since those widgets are very much proprietary and in my opinion go against the idea of what mobile widgets should be.

Till next time…

In my next article I’m going to expand on widgets in more detail. Talking specifically about JIL and trying to cover the good the bad and the painful aspects of the current implementation as well as where I see things going.

I leave you with another article on a similar topic: http://www.quirksmode.org/blog/archives/2009/11/native_iphone_a.html

4 Responses

  1. [...] Mobile Widgets – Persistence Cross-Platform Wrapper Mobile Widgets – a primer [...]

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