The Long tail and Mobile Web 2.0 applications

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Background

This is an ambitious post and I seek your feedback to improve its insights.

One of my personal highlights at 3GSM was an informal meeting organised by Daniel Appelquist from Vodafone. Apart from futuretext(me), other attendees included Vodafone, Swisscom,Ikivo ,IBM, T-mobile, Gregory Gorman(The Open Group) , Access , Soonr and Teleca.

Opera Software , Sony-Ericsson and Openwave expressed support for the meeting , but were unable attend due to the pressures of 3GSM week.

The common interest unifying this group was a commitment to the Mobile Web, Open Standards and Mobile Ajax.

This post is my personal viewpoint as to how we, as an industry, can leverage the power of the Mobile Web. The ideas outlined here were broadly discussed in the meeting – however the analysis, approach and emphasis are mine. In other words, the conclusions reached here were not reached by the group; but rather by me based on the insights gained from the group.

As I get more feedback from you, I hope to refine the views here.

Also, while the original remit of the meeting was to discuss Mobile Ajax, I have included two other related Web based technologies in this discussion – namely Mobile Widgets and WICD. Thus, in this article, when I am referring to Mobile browsing technologies, I am referring to all three technologies unless otherwise specified.

By extension, the document refers only to applications developed on Web standards and does not include any other non-web technologies.

The problem

The current Mobile Web ecosystem presents a complex and an evolving framework. Within this framework, the questions we address here are:

a) How to ‘sell’ the vision to the all players in the industry; especially to Mobile Operators

b) How to empower grassroots developers by creating a vibrant ecosystem – a problem which I have historically been discussing in my blog and books

c) Operators face the problem of how to work with incremental/grassroots innovation. In contrast to existing top down services which are complex for an Operator to deploy(and approve within their own organization), they need a simpler, more granular framework to handle the many ‘Long tail’ applications

d) How to harness innovation arising from the many grassroots / Long Tail applications – many of which will never ‘take off’. A few will be super hits. However, an ecosystem is needed to allow them all to flourish

e) How can Operators gain financially from new innovation without taking on the complex task of working with thousands of developers

f) How can developers(especially Web developers) work with the industry and make money from their innovations with low risk deployments

g) Can Operators take on the role of the Amazon marketplace – leveraging their existing infrastructure to gain new revenue sources which span the Web and the Mobile domains? These services could be implemented similar to Amazon Web Services APIs.

The options

Within the framework of Mobile browsing technologies, we could potentially create five classes of applications(note that this categorization is not technology based – but rather, it is based on function) within the context of the above Web technologies

These application classes include :

1) ‘Convergence’ applications: In this class of applications, the browser is the lowest common denominator across a range of devices – thereby enabling these devices to communicate via Web based technologies

2) Content access applications: Accessing any content from a mobile device through browser based technologies

3) Enterprise access applications: A special case of class 2 for enterprise data

4) Device API applications: Mobile applications that need access to the device APIs(such as the messaging API, phone API etc)

5) Long tail applications: Discussed in detail below

The current industry focus leans towards ‘Device API applications’ i.e. applications that need access to Phone APIs. While access to device APIs is ideal, it may not be always necessary. For instance, the Soonr applications run Mobile Ajax without needing to access device APIs.

Ultimately, the industry will evolve to overcome the device API access issues for browsers. However, this document outlines a class of applications which do not necessarily need access to device APIs – i.e. what is referred to here as the ‘Long tail’ applications.

The philosophical foundations behind Long tail Mobile Web applications are based on three ideas

a) Tim Berners Lee’s keynote address at 3GSM which talked about a unified, holistic vision for the Mobile Web

b) The principles of the Long Tail

c) And finally, my own document – which first touched on the Long Tail applications driven by the power of Mobile Ajax.

Description

What type of application are we outling here?

The answer is: We don’t know. Because it is not a specific application – but rather an ecosystem.

Thus, we cannot predict the actual applications that will be winners.

This ecosystem has the following characteristics:

a) It is based on Web standards and specifically on the three Web technologies which are relevant to Mobile applications: Mobile Ajax, Mobile Widgets and WICD

b) By extension of the above, we are working with applications that span the Web and the Mobile Web

c) The applications are typically small, single function applications(at least initially). Typically, they could be accessing any content from the Web – including content from Enterprises.

d) The operator has a critical role to play – more akin to Amazon marketplace

e) By the nature of Mobile Web, the strategy depends on next generation mobile web technologies. Most new devices from all device vendors are supporting the full Web browser(by ‘full web browsers’, we mean browsers supporting technologies like Javascript i.e. not WAP/XHTML etc)

f) Developers have the ability to create and deploy applications very fast. These applications make money from day one for the developer! Not a lot of money – but a billing model should exist. The operator could mange the billing and distribution model

An example of such a service could be almost any ‘Widget’ (running on both Web and mobile devices) – for instance a Widget that gives local bus timings. Such a Widget would run on the Web and also the Mobile Web.

Advantages

This approach has a number of advantages:

a) Operator gain a new source of revenue from Long tail applications

b) They become a ‘bazaar’ – similar to Amazon marketplace

c) Developers are empowered and can make money from applications that span the Web and the Mobile Web

d) The approach is based on Web/Open standards. Because Web standards are not burdened by Intellectual property, they are cheaper to deploy

e) We are addressing problems which we can solve rather than getting bogged down with problems that are too difficult at the moment(for instance device API

applications). This starts the ecosystem development now and in future, more complex problems like Device APIs can be addressed.

Conclusions

• I see this appoach to be a pragmatic way to move things forward rather than waiting for more complex problems (like device access APIs) to be resolved.

• We are takes the view that : Let us start somewhere and then grow a viable ecosystem where all participants can make money.

• It is based on Web standards, which are cheaper and more inclusive in comparison to propriotery standards

• It fosters the notion of the ‘One Web’ and introduces developers to the Mobile Web through standards that they are familiar with

Next Steps

I view this as a living document and a manifestation of my book Mobile Web 2.0 i.e. ‘how Mobile Web 2.0 may manifest itself’ . I look forward to your feedback which I shall incorporate in this document.

I will also create other documents specific to the technologies and to convergence in general for instance Mobile Widgets, Mobile Ajax, Browsers/IMS as convergence mechanisms etc

Please email me your thoughts/feedback and future contributions to this document at ajit.jaokar at futuretext.com

Acknowledgements

All the participants of the above meeting and especially Dan Appelquiest from Vodafone for his initial feedback.

About the author

Ajit Jaokar is based in London and is the co-author of the book Mobile Web 2.0 . He is the CEO of a publishing company futuretext. He chairs Oxford University’s next generation mobile applications panel

Recent media / talks have included 3GSM Barcelona-2007, CNN Money, The Scoble show, O Reilly Web 2.0 expo, Stanford university and MIT Sloan(April 2007)