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Today, I went to the Future of Mobile conferency thing in Kensington. This happens to be the very first industry thing I’ve been to where the company I work for has had a major showing, and a major showing we made today. Not only with CEO Doug Richards going on a freeform odysssy of not only the future of mobile but its present also, up to Tom Hume of Future Platforms presented a talk on how designing multiple interfaces for each phone isn’t something that scales effort very well, and scaling very well is precisely the solution to the problem. FP are the people who build the TT App.

On top of that, CTO Carl did a panel at the end, Product Manager Luke’s on the spot for a workshop tomorrow (I think) and, generally, we were Visible.

I arrived a little late, but wasn’t too fussed about missing the first subjective five hours of the Phone Operating Systems panel, and instead only sitting though the final subjective two hours. There was a running theme of “The world would be better if the Operating Systems worked together” which was to be implemented as “You should work with us”, a theme that continued though the day, with Adobe’s Open Screen thing announcement starting off with “Do you know what sucks? The fact that everyone’s solution to the ‘There are too many platforms’ problem being to create a new platform.” I actually honestly hoped they had worked out a solution to this, and indeed they have. They have created a new platform. But it’s based on Flash, so that’s all right then.

Currently there are three main problems with developing mobile applications. They are these:

  1. The phone operating systems
  2. The operators
  1. The install base.

    1 & 2 are classic problems. There are a wide range of operating systems for phones, few of which allow for things to run on more than one of them, and the desire for Operators to not become merely another data pipe (as the land-line phone companies did before them as the Web spread) but to retain a measure of control over their users (be it by refusing to allow non-signed apps to be installed as in the US, or by limiting data use by screwing around with socket access and web proxies as in Europe. Three have even started inserting HTML into pages in mid-flight, a-la 1990s Geocities).

    The third problem is the elephant in the room that none of the proposed solutions cover. It’s all very well for the iPhone interface to be cool, for Android and new Symbian installs to allow access to the phone’s data, for the Open Screen faffery to allow porting an application from phone to browser to desktop to mind-link by redefining the interface specification, but none of those are of any use to anyone who bought a phone before 2006.

    You can’t just pull a new standard out of your arse, say “I solved it!” and entirely ignore the billions of handsets and users that are simply not using “smart” level handsets. Like the rise of CSS in the last few years, but on a much larger scale, it’s not enough to declare that everyone else is doing it wrong simply because the early adopters now have something that does it right, you can’t just stop supporting them yet. We’re not even in the transition phase, where we have something to migrate to.

    It’s getting better. Back when I was working for Internet Designers, we were working on Java-based games for some of the very first mobiles to support it. At that point, one of the phones was so strapped for memory that Nokia had sliced out the portions of Java that allowed for network connectivity. You could access the internet, or you could run a Java app, but you couldn’t do both at the same time. As functionality increases, compatibility increases, and as more companies rely on full support of the VM, it gets slowly better with phone releases. Sometimes it gets worse.

    One of the recurring themes when the tech-’bloggers’ (Still hate that damned phrase after ten years) took to the stage was that the fundamentals still have to be solved. There’s no point in developing the next wonder-app if nobody ‘normal’ will download it because they’re afraid they’ll get a bill for a thousand pounds in data charges. Comparison was made to the days before flat-rate dial-up, and for good reason. The concept of bill-shock has migrated to a new industry (Ironically, much less of a problem in places like India, where the phone is the primary network device (few people have PCs, so most access is net-café based, therefore public, therefore not used for Social Networking, both with and without capitals), because the data rate is much lower).

    It’s slow, and it’s frustrating, and I know this because I did it as a web developer, but just because the technology that makes all this so much cooler is so very close that we – the early-adopter ‘Mobipro’ capitalist westerners – can see it doesn’t mean we can leap to it yet.

    The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet. (William Gibson)

    On that note, and because I really should mention it, Trutap – who still pay my wages – launched the new Version Two app this week, with the brand new even cooler interface:

    The new application, which anyone can download for free, blends intuitive design with a range of interactive features that make finding and keeping in touch with friends really easy. Key features include: a personal newsfeed, ‘who’s online’, status & location, extended profile, searchable user directory, private messaging, email, SMS, blogging, photo-sharing and mobile IM.

    We haven’t released ports for every phone yet – there are various different versions, and they all need to be QA’d before they’re released. If you get V1 – or already use V1 – we aim to send you a trutap message soon when your phone gets the V2 version, so bare with us 🙂

    If you’ve got any problems with it, talk to nicholas@ or support@trutap.net

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