Mobile coding growing increasingly specialized

Increasing number of mobile platforms causing more to focus on specific OSes, and not seek abstraction layers to "write once, run anywhere", say developers.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

The increasing variety of mobile platforms is bringing the world of mobile development further, not nearer, from the goal of "write once, run anywhere" apps, say developers.

Johannes Fieres, a German developer who has coded apps on Java and Apple's iPhone, said the different subtleties between devices and mobile OSes makes the ideal of coding for a unified platform "impossible".

Fieres said in an e-mail interview that developers coding for single platforms still have to support "a jungle" of different device specifications, from screen resolutions to hardware flavors such as connectivity and input options.

That, coupled with different API (application programming interface) bugs between each mobile platform, would make an abstraction layer--or a common coding layer--above that an even unlikelier possibility, he said.

"You are asking whether I'd be interested in coding for a hypothetical platform layer that allows apps to work across multiple devices. Yes, of course I would--if only this platform wasn't hypothetical!" said Fieres.

One such platform aimed at simplifying the job of mobile coding was mobile Java platform J2ME. Sun's subsequent release of its JavaFX script was hoped to provide a software foundation allowing coders to produce richer Internet apps, atop this unified platform.

But, success has been limited.

Fieres noted that J2ME is capable of driving "simple" text-driven utility apps, but coding beyond it to create deeper design and usability, as well as immersive environments, rules out unified platforms because of the need to account for the different devices and platform UI (user interface) concepts.

Singapore-based developer, Jon Petersen, who has developed location-based apps such as buUuk and SinGeo, said the iPhone SDK (software developement kit) offers deeper controls over the device--something an abstraction layer would not be able to provide. For example, buUuk has an augmented reality function, which layers information over the user's view of streets and buildings. Enabling this function was only possible through the SDK, Petersen said in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia.

Asked if programming for multiple platforms was complicated, he said: "Yes, it's messy. A layer able to remove the messiness and deliver a great user experience across multiple platforms for a complex app like buUuk would be great, but we haven't found it yet."

HTML 5 won't kill mobile apps
Another engine targeted at helping developers reach out to users on different devices is HTML 5. On the mobile front, it will give new capabilities such as offline support, native video and speed improvements to Web apps, making them more functional.

Web giant, Google, has been an active supporter of HTML 5, and has already launched mobile versions of its Gmail and Calendar apps using the standard.

But, Fieres was doubtful of HTML 5's ability to replace offline, platform-specific apps. "In my opinion, HTML 5 will not revolutionize the mobile Web. Already today, with Ajax and Flash, impressive Web applications are possible."

However, sites such as eBay and Facebook, which offer functional mobile Web sites also feature dedicated mobile apps, said Fieres.

He said code execution and data transmission using optimized protocols are faster on these apps. Second, specific UI and design requirements cannot be realized easily with standard Web technologies, he added. And third, users "feel more strongly engaged with a service when using a [standalone] app, in contrast to just visiting the [maker's] Web site."

Fieres said: "All of these reasons will not vanish with HTML 5 or any other mid-future Web technology."

Restaurant locator app buUuk, is available on iPhone and Google's Android platforms, while mapping app SinGeo, is available as an iPhone-targeted Web app, called iSinGeo.

Petersen said the choice of keeping SinGeo as a browser-based mobile app was not deliberate, only that it was "all that was possible" when he first developed SinGeo for the mobile. "Since the iPhone SDK became available, a lot of the value of iSinGeo has become commoditized," he said.

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