Friday, 19 January 2007

The next generation

While I was away, I regularly wanted to check my email, the internet and various news and blog feeds but without all the hassle of finding an internet cafe every time. I already use Opera Mini on my mobile phone as the default web browser and it's damn good. I upgraded to version 3 before I left which supports all the usual suspects such as HTML and (limited but solid) CSS as well as fast searching of google/wikipedia down to the browser's homepage and also some very funky support of RSS and default image compression to reduce page load times of web pages.

I'd highly recommend it as a piece of kit - sure it's not going to be as easy to use as a keyboard for writing lengthy emails, but it's pretty easy to use the inbuilt predictive text feature on your phone to put words down. Gmail looks great in it and feeds are nicely displayed, it's also pretty quick download times and the big benefit of course is that it's available on demand with any connection signal.

I never used to be a big fan of browsers for phones, but maybe there just needed to be that development time to get them up to speed. With the new Apple iPhone (with an implementation of the Safari web browser) and Opera Mini dominating market share currently it looks like there's a shift in the traditional browser wars occurring. In fact a brief search on Google shows that the first result for "Internet Explorer for mobile phones" comes back with the Microsoft Mobile Explorer (MME) a product that was launched some 8 years ago in 1999 and no longer supported. It reminds me of IE where Microsoft always said that they weren't going to update the browser after IE6 and only security concerns really forced them into launching IE7 some years later, but this seems to be a total step away for them from a large browser market.

Maybe they're concentrating on their other areas of business such as their suite of operating systems, or their MS Office products but it seems strange to have the world's biggest software company ignore an entire section of the market almost identical to one they fought so hard to acquire in the 90's. I can understand it from a implementation point of view - IE interacts so much with the underlying operating system (e.g. ActiveX and the JScript engine) that it would be very, very difficult to get a standalone version of IE running. In fact the only one that springs to mind is IE5 for the Mac, a product that stopped being supported many moons ago. So maybe they just don't want the hassle and bad PR?

But it does show a few things that have changed over the years. Consumers are getting more technically savvy by having minimal problems adjusting to the products of the different browser vendors and the various implementations of those browsers. Microsoft is having its software base attacked from many angles with Firefox (side note: it's not going to be long before a mobile phone version of Firefox is released I'm sure) taking chunks of IE's browser market share, IBM's Lotus Notes making a comeback as well as OpenOffice and Google Docs and Spreadsheets taking share from Microsoft Office. Of course Unix and various flavours of Linux are holding their own against the Microsoft Server family, but also more recently Linux distributions such as ubuntu are eating into the desktop OS market - especially in the emerging markets of the developing world.

Microsoft still has an enormous user base and have for years been "under attack" commercially speaking, from smaller software vendors but it does seem that they've been losing the battle recently. There's a movement in progress towards a diverse software base from different vendors governed only by rules of connectivity (protocols) rather than just the one vendor pushing data around its own suite of applications. I like this idea that the rules are being mixed up - Google using the Internet for spreadsheets, there's online file storage in the form of Flickr and free/open source software such as OpenOffice and Opera Mini are competing as equals against proprietary software.

I truly believe that there's lots of business oppertunity out there as this shift takes place. "Web 2.0" (for want of a better description) has shown us data collation and display to be a valid software tool in itself and that self-growing online environments can spawn exponentially, linking to each other and having shared users and user accounts (look no further than using Google accounts to login with). For me this is the true Internet - a proper interactive environment where you have access to any and all information you require, as well as the software to propogate this information - software that is free and easy to use.

With the slow release of end users from Microsoft's business model it gives us all more technical savvy from using a more diverse software base, as well as oppertunity to try and use software for free or very limited cost (OpenOffice, Flickr, ubuntu,, etc) using this growing technical knowledge effectively and really pushing software creators to develop what we want and demand.

So that's all pretty chirpy really, everything's cool and funky. But here's the kicker - the software that needs to challenge Microsoft and the global market must be really top notch. The software must be efficient from the outset both in planning and the implementation of that planning. If one thing that has been shown time after time, as in the case with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, a badly conceived and implemented piece of software turns inflexible very, very quickly and this bad planning will come back and bite you in the ass - hard. Of course with IE, Microsoft were pushing a brand new market but because they had not been flexible initially IE7 still had implementation problems that were around since the very first versions. This can be shown by trying to install 2 versions of IE on the same machine without using any extra software. IE has ultimately been shown up to be hugely inflexible and technically very backward in core areas!

So I'm looking forward this year to building efficient, flexible software. Something that's going to challenge and push forward not regress and look backwards. This year sets the foundations for future standards. The aim is to build software that supports users with accesibility issues, it will support modern browsers, it will look to easily support future browsers and be clear and concise and efficient and really, really easy to use. It's time to build the next generation of the Internet and I'm damn proud to be a part of it.