Higher mobile penetration a call for greater interoperability

With multiple device ownership going up, interoperability in mobile-based consumption for users is an important area for the open source and open standards movement.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The pervasiveness of multiple device ownership has made mobile a key area to further the open source and open standards momentum, and one project Microsoft Open Technologies is driving is the introducing specifications related to enabling Web pages on any browser to understand different inputs such as touch-based movements.

Gianugo Rabellino, senior director of open source communities at Microsoft Open Technologies, said the company recently proposed a set of changes to the WebKit framework to support a specification standard called "Pointer Events", and hence make it more interoperable across different Web browsers. WebKit is a layout engine software that allows Web browsers to render pages, and is used by Safari from Apple, Chrome from Google, and more recently, Opera.

During an interview here Wednesday, Rabellino said this recommendation will solve "a very important problem" of mobile Web browsing in particular. He was in Singapore as part of a visit to Asia to launch Openness Night initiatives--a monthly gathering of Microsoft and local open source communities--in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Mobile Web browsing now sees multiple input modes such as finger-tapping and using a stylus.

Rabellino explained that mobile device ownership and mobile Web browsing has become pervasive, which resulted in people interacting with devices beyond the traditional computer mouse. These "inputs" now include finger touch, body gestures, and the pen-like stylus.

However, mobile Web pages remain stuck in understanding only mouse-click inputs, he said. "When you touch or tap a [mobile Web site] page with your finger, that site interprets it as a mouse click. It can't tell the difference."

Emulating mouse clicks with finger taps is a "poor substitute" on mobile Web pages, said Rabellino. It could also get problematic, for example, when certain sites have drop-down menus which appear only when a mouse cursor hovers over it.

Pointer Events is a specification which enables Web developers to create pages that can detect and handle different types of inputs when a user interaction with a Web page, aside from mouse clicks, according to Rabellino.

The implementation is available on Internet Explorer 10, but "we want to see it broadly available [on other browsers], so we proposed changes to WebKit to implement [Pointer Events]", he said.

This interoperability is vital, and ultimately to the users' benefit, since more people own more than one device today, Rabellino emphasized. That means different mobile browsers as well as different mobile form factors. Also, a single device may offer multiple input modes, supporting finger-touch and body gestures such as eye movements, plus it comes with a stylus, he added.

"From an end user point of view, interoperability is a given, to ensure all my devices work together, regardless of [the brand]. I am seriously convinced this is about natural selection. If a company builds its services as an island, users will walk away because they prefer a model where things work together."

No smokescreen for open source
Microsoft Open Technologies originated from Microsoft's Interoperability Strategy team, and was formed in April last year as wholly-owned subsidiary of Microsoft.

Rabellino described openness as two-fold, sharing source code as well as enabling products or services from different makers to communicate with one another.

While the individual business groups in Microsoft already have their own open source efforts for their respective technologies, Microsoft Open Technologies focuses on the engineering efforts where open source and open standards intertwine, as well as provide broader outreach to local developer and open source communities, he said.

Asked if the formation of the unit would help send a stronger signal of the vendor's stake in open source, Rabellino replied that was a not a reason why Open Technologies was created. "There is no amount of PR (public relations) or smokescreen that will work, if at the end of the day, we don't deliver code and standards out there for people to see."

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