Mobile Web 2.0 Experiences Growing Pains
As wireless technologies and social networking have become more popular, there has been increasing interest in combining the two.
Now, Mobile Web 2.0 adoption is starting to grow, with the ongoing implementation of faster wireless networks and the increased usage of powerful devices such as Apple's iPhone and Research in Motion's BlackBerry.
These networks and devices offer the performance necessary to run Mobile Web 2.0 applications.
The rise of wireless social networking offers vendors potential new revenue streams and mobile users added inconvenience.
It also brings Web 2.0 to a large new group of people: users of smart phones, PDAs, and laptops.
And it enables a new twist on traditional Web 2.0. In addition to typical social-networking offerings such as blogs; multiplayer games; and the sharing of data, conversations, and product and book reviews, mobile Web 2.0 enables location-based services.
These services include driving directions; the location of nearby friends; and information about local stores, restaurants, and attractions.
Start-ups have entered the field, but even established social-networking companies are getting involved. For example, Facebook has helped develop mobile social-networking applications for the iPhone, BlackBerry and other platforms.
"People want to take Facebook with them," said Michael Sharon, a product manager with the company. "So we work with [device makers] to create applications for their phones."
One of advanced, mobile Web applications' biggest challenges is that the lack of wireless-technology standards frequently requires developers to spend time and money writing multiple versions of their applications for different device platforms.
In addition, vendors haven't yet developed business models for generating profits from Mobile Web 2.0.
What Moves Mobile Web 2.0?
The increasing demand for wireless Internet access, location-based services, and other sophisticated mobile applications is driving the market for Mobile Web 2.0, said Noah Elkin, research analyst with market research firm eMarketer.
There have been sophisticated mobile applications for about 15 years, beginning with the Palm platform. But the iPhone's release in 2007 captured the imagination of developers and users and helped create the explosive growth in demand for such applications, noted David Smith, research director at Gartner Inc., a market analysis firm.
eMarketer estimates that in the US alone, the number of mobile Internet users will rise from 59.5 million in 2008 to 134.3 million in 2013.
Juniper Research predicts revenue generated globally by Mobile Web 2.0 will grow from $5.5 billion in 2008 to $22.4 billion in 2013.
Social networking is the fastest growing type of mobile Web application, with US usage increasing 187 percent between July 2008 and July 2009, according to Elkin.
Mobile Web 2.0-related vendors include Bebo, Facebook, Fring, Frenzoo, Flirtomatic, Meet Now Live, mig33, Nimbuzz, Pelago, and Xumii.
Ajax is a programming technique for creating rich, interactive Internet applications that behave like desktop programs.
REST is a networked-software approach that uses Web technologies such as HTTP to describe how to enable easy online information and resource exchange via distributed data objects.
SOAP lets a program running in one OS communicate via HTTP and XML with an application running in another OS.
Mobile Web 2.0
Mobile Web 2.0 uses the same technologies as traditional Web 2.0.
However, Mobile Web 2.0 is adapted for use with handheld devices, which have slower processors and smaller screens; and wireless networks, which are slower and have occasional bandwidth fluctuations.
The most common adaptations are the use of lower-bandwidth applications and Web sites designed to display on small screens.
Location-based services are one of Mobile Web 2.0’s biggest selling points, said Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, director of distribution and marketing for SPRXmobile.
The company's Layar application provides useful information about nearby stores and other places people can see through their mobile device's camera.
Mobile Web 2.0 makes use of wireless devices' cameras, GPS systems, and networking capabilities.
For example, a smart phone might send users' location, identified via GPS, to a social-networking site so that they could either find nearby stores or restaurants, or be located by friends.
Challenges to Mobile Web 2.0
Mobile Web 2.0 growth faces numerous challenges.
The security of transmissions is an issue, but no more so than with PC-based Web browsing. One concern, though, is that if people lose their phone, the finder could log onto Web sites using credentials stored in the device.
Bandwidth and device limitations
Mobile applications, including those for Web 2.0, can be compute-intensive and thus consume a lot of wireless networks' limited bandwidth, noted eMarketer's Elkin.
During a recent US Federal Communications Commission hearing, FCC chair Julius Genachowski predicted that mobile broadband services' monthly bandwidth requirements will grow from 6 petabytes in 2009 to 400 petabytes in 2013.
Because of bandwidth limitations, Mobile Web 2.0 users might become dissatisfied with slow performance and wait until they are on a high-speed LAN to use certain applications.
The performance of mobile devices and their software is improving regularly. However, the devices still have limited processing power, storage capacity, and battery life.
And increasing processing power to handle Web 2.0 and other advanced applications reduces battery life, noted Simon Newstead, CEO and cofounder of Frenzoo, an avatar-based social-networking site.
There are numerous mobile-device platforms, including those based on the BlackBerry, iPhone, Palm, Symbian, and Windows operating systems.
The platforms don't fully interoperate, so an application built for one OS may not offer full functionality or may not work at all on others.
A generic browser or other Mobile Web 2.0 approach that would work across platforms would have to offer only the common aspects of each, explained David Barnard, owner and master craftsman of iPhone-application developer AppCubby. It thus would not offer the many specialized capabilities unique to the various platforms, he explained.
Building multiple versions of applications to run on various platforms, such as via APIs and software development kits, yields more functionality.
However, this approach can entail considerable work and expense.
'We now deploy applications for nine different platforms, which is an absolute nightmare," explained Tobias Kemper, Nimbuzz USA's business and marketing manager.
He said there are even challenges developing applications for different versions of the same platform.
Vendors have not developed a business model for generating profits from Mobile Web 2.0.
They are currently focused more on building market share than monetization, explained eMarketer's Elkin.
Several revenue-generating possibilities include advertising included on Web pages, games, maps, and other applications shown on phones; subscriptions to Web 2.0 services; software sales; upgrades from free basic applications to more advanced programs; and partnerships between application developers and service providers.
According to Nimbuzz’s Kemper, service providers may be willing to participate because they could earn revenue from Web 2.0 services, which could increase the amount of time users stay on carriers’ networks and also increase customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Just because the market for Mobile Web 2.0 applications is growing, developers still may not be able to create sustainable business models, said Noel Llopis, founder and owner of iPhone game developer Snappy Touch.
Moreover, many vendors are trying to build market share by selling Mobile Web 2.0 applications at very low prices, he noted.
However, he added, "It's hard to build a sustainable business around that model."
According to Frenzoo's Newstead, Mobile Web 2.0's future will be location-based services.
"Integrating location into modern high-speed handsets is starting to unveil a new category of augmented-reality applications," he explained.
Said SPRXmobile's Lens-FitzGerald, "We are just at the start of context-relevant applications, and that will be a key differentiator from the Web services we know."
George Lawton is a freelance technology writer based in Monte Rio, California. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.