Mobile Internet Devices - Part 1: An Introduction

By: Rob Williams

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For years now one of the biggest "pandora's boxes" of the internet has been "the mobile web". There have been all kinds of people talking about it, all kinds of ideas being passed around, and at the same time, very little actual true understanding and realization by developers of just how much the "mobile web" is changing and developing over time. Our goal today is to take a quick run through what the original "mobile web" was, and how innovations in hardware and general industry changes have radically changed that original definition. Most importantly though we'll look at how those changes affect us, as web developers, both in how we work and in how we need to think about the web in general.

In the Beginning: Birth of the Mobile Web

I still remember the first time I ever heard of "the mobile web" several years ago. Back then database-driven development and server-side scripting languages were just beginning to come into their own, and Flash was finally starting to make breakthroughs with the release of MX/MX2004. Ironically, those were also the days back when the average cell phone (mobile if you prefer) was little more than an actual phone, complete with a cute postage-stamp sized screen that could display about 40 characters at a time in a wide range of what always seemed to be the worst "gif-esque" low-bit colour range possible (if you were lucky enough to have colour that is!). The "mobile web" wasn't concerned with such primitive devices though... because what really mattered at the time wasn't the average device, it was the new range of "high end devices and PDAs" that were beginning to finally gain proper radios and remote access capabilities. All of a sudden your windows mobile PDA could get to the internet with a "cell connection" rather than having to be updated manually while tethered to a full-sized computer. Blackberries hit the market, and slowly the concept came into place: the internet was no longer "tied" to the desktop computer.

For all the hype and excitement of the time though it really didn't turn out to be quite as revolutionary as the original designs had seemed. Sure, now you could access your text emails on a Blackberry or PDA, and if you were feeling really adventurous you could even try to access proper web sites using whatever horribly limited browser and connection speed you had available, but it really didn't compare to the "web experience" that you got on a standard computer.

About 3 years ago I remember wandering through the "used books" section of a ComputerFest and stumbling across a rather beat up copy of Flash Enabled: Flash Design and Development for Devices. I picked it up, thinking it would be perfect for a friend of mine who was very big on Flash and "changing the world", and just did a quick thumb through to get an idea of what sort of things the book actually covered. There were all kinds of neat examples of what you could do using Flash technology, with examples of all the different screen resolutions and layouts that you needed to accommodate as "possible targets" for you applications. Sure, it seemed like a lot of work, but the ideas sounded pretty neat and I figured "hey, maybe it's just me behind the times with my old phone, everyone else probably has one of these cool supported devices". When I passed the book along to my friend later we both had several excited discussions about all of the neat possibilities; he even went as far as to get one of the "supported" devices for development and testing work. In the end though, years later, I've still to see a single one of those apps that ever really made it very far.

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Keywords
mobile internet, mobile web, portable devices, MID