Apps is the new Web: sowing the seeds for Web 3.0

[With the phenomenal success of mobile apps, the world of content is migrating from web 2.0 to apps as the new format for creating, packaging, discovering, paying and interacting with information. Andreas Constantinou analyses how apps are the evolution of Web 2.0 and where this phenomenon will lead us next]

VisionMobile - Apps is the new web

Billions of downloads. That’s how the success of software platforms is measured today. And while downloads is not a currency (it does not necessarily translate into revenues), it does create plenty of free buzz for software platforms. This is the world of apps.

But what is an app really? It’s not just a bunch of code and a fancy UI. Apps are the new channel for delivering services and experiences in mobile devices, taking over from the old world of web pages, texting, ringtones, wallpapers, MMS, Mobile TV – and some would argue voice, too. What’s interesting all these technologies were agreed over 1,000s of meetings and years of standardisation work taking place across (mostly) network operators in the 80s and 90s. In the case of apps, none of this had to be ‘standardised’, just adopted by a critical mass of software developers and in turn a critical mass of users. Today the billions of downloads are indeed that success metric of de-facto standards like iOS, Android, Blackberry, Symbian and Java – even if the vast majority of downloads take place on a small fraction (5%) of the devices sold.

[poll id=8]

Despite the fragmented nature of the app economy, we ‘re reaching a milestone at the end of 2010: more than 500,000 mobile apps will become available for Apple, Android, BlackBerry, Java ME, BREW, Symbian and Windows Phone devices in total.

The number is only a fraction of the big picture; what apps have accomplished is an unprecedented speed of innovation and a diversity of use cases. Think about it; traditional mobile services cater mostly to communication needs. Apps cater to the entire spectrum of consumer needs: entertainment, travel, health, food, sports, finance, education.

Network operators have for years been trying to increase service ARPU, i.e. revenues stemming not from voice, texting or data traffic (which are consistently declining due to regulation and competition), but revenues stemming from additional services. Operators (aka carriers) have taken a technology centric-view which is that new revenue can come from the introduction of new technology – MMS, Mobile TV and 3G. Instead apps have taken the view that new revenue can come from addressing new consumer needs. And that’s how apps have allowed mobile to tap into a far more segments of the user spending pie.

Apps as the Web 3.0
Such is the allure of apps that every brand and every service provider is looking to create their own apps, whether as part of their brand identity, as a lead generator, a traffic driver or even a direct revenue source. Soon every enterprise will want their own set of apps, essentially creating a more intelligent mobile intranet, for example with apps for guiding you to your next meeting, for inventory tracking or on-the-spot videoconferencing. We can easily imagine a world where there will be an app for every brand, every service provider and every corporate intranet.

Apps have grown out of the roots of the web; in a sense an evolution of Web 2.0, adding not only new forms of interaction, but also new forms of discovery, monetisation and deeper user context, as summarised in the next table.

Apps Web
Discovery app store text results or URL
User context location, contacts explicit info only
Access mode online/offline online
Monetisation micropayments ads
UI design focus tailored experience compatibility
Interaction model touch, sensors, keys mouse, keys
Usability focus get things done explore
Economy download economy attention economy

Some aspects are worth highlighting:

Discovery is critical to the take-up of mobile apps. Webpages are discovered through Google search or a memorable address. The results you get back from Google take a lot of second-guessing as there is no information semantics describing a webpage or its relationship to other pages. On the contrary apps are published with semantic information as part of the submission process; genre, description, price and screenshots, while downloads, ratings and recommendations are added in-life. This makes discovering apps much more straightforward and intuitive.

User context. Apps have access to location and contacts (subject to certification/approval in some cases) whereas web pages only have access to explicitly provided user info.

Monetisation should also not be underestimated. The freemium business model and the ubiquity of freely available news on the internet arose from the lack of effective micro-payment mechanisms; it is too cumbersome to take out a credit card and pay 10 cents for reading a newspaper online and no payment provider has managed to simplify this (although Paypal and Google Checkout are trying). On the contrary, many app stores have included micro-payments (pay per download) from day one.

Apps are now going beyond mobile. Not only to tablets (see iPad and the tablets coming with Android 3.0) but also to the web (Chrome Web Store), the desktop (Mac App Store) and the billions of connected devices out there from TVs to cars.

Apps are also changing the rules of the game for Google. The search giant rose due to three factors: the open (crawlable) web, the lack of information semantics (necessitating a pagerank-type taxonomy) and the lack of a micro-payments (thereby increasing the demand for ads).

Now the world of apps is coming to threaten the foundations of Google’s success: the web is becoming segregated into walled information gardens (exemplified by Facebook and Apple’s App Store), apps carry information semantics (thereby greatly reducing the search space), and micro-payments are the primary revenue model for apps (thereby decreasing the need for ads as a monetisation medium).

Google is of course preparing for the world where apps become a mainstream means of accessing the world’s information by launching is own walled gardens (Orkut and Buzz), its own app store (Android Market and Chrome Web Store) and now integrating a payments technology (NFC) within Android handsets.

So where are we going next?

The web as the new app
Not to be left behind, web technologies (HTML, JavaScript and CSS) are being driven forward by the world’s web benefactors. Google actively invests in ‘web development’ with the aim to advance the state and adoption of web technologies so that it can supplant the otherwise proprietary technologies (Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM and its own Android) which today power the world of apps. This is part of Google’s strategy to level the playing field where it doesn’t compete directly and Chrome is a big part of Google’s web development efforts, incl. WebKit and v8.

HTML5 standardisation (and initiatives like Webinos) are trying to make the web a primary app platform with offline access plus access into contacts and other user information. In parallel the WebKit engine is being consistently adopted in mobile handsets by just about every manufacturer with over 350M deployments up to the end of June 2010.

More than anything, web technologies are being adopted by mobile platform vendors looking to renew their platform and developer strategy. In order to be competitive, a platform today needs to have three elements:
– mature technology and tools
– hype/buzz
– an active developer community

While you can buy technology, buzz and developer communities are very expensive to build. Like a deus ex machina, web technologies come out of the box hype-ready and with an established developer community. As a result, Nokia, Palm (now HP) and RIM all chose web technologies in WRT, WebOS and WebWorks respectively, as the technology basis of their platform. I believe players who need to refresh their platforms (like Qualcomm’s BREW MP, Samsung and LG) would opt for web technologies.

Web technologies also allow mobile platform providers to tap into new developer segments (designers, scripters, back-end developers, CMS developers and more). More importantly, web technologies reduce the development costs for cross-domain development across mobile, tablets, desktop, car, and consumer electronics from toys to TVs.

Once web technologies are consistently adopted in 3-5 years we should see web move from today’s lowest common denominator to powering the next-generation of apps across connected devices, from toys to TVs and from web pages to apps – and the browsing (exploratory, lowest-common-denominator) experience moving to resemble an app (getting things done, immersive) experience. Perhaps this is the Web 3.0 we ‘ve all be waiting for.

The question is: are apps a ‘blip’ on the radar before the web takes over again? No – apps represent the evolution of creating, packaging, discovering, paying and interacting with information – and while today’s apps are based on mostly proprietary technologies (Apple, Android, BlackBerry, BREW, Symbian, Windows Phone) tomorrow’s apps will be mostly based on web technologies. As to the open web vs closed web silos debate (analysed eloquently by Wired magazine) history teaches us that closed silos are faster at innovating that the open web – and that the web governance will oscillate between the yin and yang for the years to come.

– Andreas
You should follow me on Twitter @andreascon

The Flash vs. HTML5 Endgame

[In the debate of Flash vs HTML5, has the death of Flash been over exaggerated? Guest author Guilhem Ensuque peeks through thick layers of hype and facts to predict what the future holds for the mobile web].

The Flash vs. HTML5 Endgame

The last year has seen a flurry of announcements and debate around the rise of HTML5 and the fall of Flash. Some have even gone as far as declaring a “war” between the two, and predicting the “death” of Flash as the outcome. However, as Mark Twain once famously said: “The rumor of my death is an exaggeration”. As we’ll see, the jury is still out as far as the fate of Flash and Adobe are concerned.

A brief (abridged) history of the web
“HTML5” is the new high-tech industry darling, and not just in the mobile space. It has become a catch-all phrase with little meaning when taken out of context. Before we dig into the debate, it’s worth looking at what is HTML5 and where has it come from.

“HTML5” when used as a shorthand, covers of family of web technologies currently being standardised by the W3C and at various implementation stages by browser vendors. The “5” comes from the version increment in the W3C spec number: currently most of the content you read on the web conforms to the HTML specification version 4.01.

To understand what has driven the creation of this new version of web standards, we need to look at the evolution of the web in past years.

historyofwebIn the 1990s the World-Wide-Web emerged from academia to become the ubiquitous medium to share digital documents over Internet Protocol networks. The HTML4 spec was matured in that era, and has been very much geared towards read-only, document-oriented description and hyper-linking. HTML4 mixes typographical tags with document structure description, within the bounds of static pages and has limited support for script-driven page logic and forms (does anyone remember CGI?). In that era of the web, support for multimedia content was notably absent from the web specification; leading to heterogeneous plug-ins striving to provide video delivery in web pages (remember Real Networks? or having to choose the speed of your modem?).

In the 2000s, the web evolved towards more interactivity with the advent of the “Web 2.0” (yet another buzzword) and user-generated content, especially videos uploaded and then streamed over faster ADSL connections. However, the HTML spec did not fundamentally change (apart from an attempt by the W3C to migrate to the stricter XHTML syntax which has seen mixed results in terms of adoption). To cope with HTML4‘s inefficiencies in allowing designers and developers to create interactive “experiences” (i.e. not just documents, but bi-directional “applications” living in your web browser) a number of innovations were introduced :

  • JavaScript, Dynamic HTML and XML HTTP requests (a.k.a. AJAX) as a way to have thick-client app functionality in the browser, enabling users to interact with the web in a read-write fashion (not just read-only)
  • clear separation of page structure in HTML (through heavy use of <div> tags) as well as typoraphy and style in CSS (through an arcane and verbose syntax), leading to more pleasant user experience and richer page contents
  • PHP-scripted and database-powered back-end logic bolted on top web server systems. This e.g. allowed template-driven content management systems like WordPress and Joomla to rise to prominence, fueling the blog revolution.

These innovations brought the ability to present vast amounts of data in pretty-looking dynamic web pages which mash-in RSS feeds, emails, blogs, Facebook updates, and tweets, and bringing web pages a step closer to applications.

In that era, Flash (or rather the Flash Player) rose to become a ubiquitous browser plug-in for animated graphics and video. At the same time, Flash evolved to provide an out-of-browser Rich Internet Application platform with the AIR runtime and the Flex framework, albeit at a much lower penetration level than the in-browser Flash Player.

We are now at the dawn of the 2010s, and the overhaul of the HTML4 spec is long overdue. HTML5 aims to bring back into the core spec of the web the “side” developments of the previous era and improve on them with a heavy focus on web applications. It also aims to lay the foundations enabling the delivery of web content through a new medium: mobile devices, and ultimately the “Internet of Things”. That history is yet to be written, but we can now ponder about its beginnings and the future.

So, What is HTML5 Really ?
In the context of this new era, the “HTML5” shorthand refers to a family of web standards and browser technologies that span a range of topics:

  • A modernized web markup language: the true-and-only HTMLv5 specification and matching evolution in web browser capabilities. The new syntax includes the <canvas> tag allowing bitmap manipulation through JavaScript drawing APIs, better support for vector graphics authored in SVG, the <video> tag allowing streamed media playback as simply as embedding images and the streamlining of tag usage.
  • A richer styling language: the Cascaded Style Sheets v3 specifications. CSS3 is now famous for its ability to create rounded corners, but more importantly includes so-called “transforms” allowing graphical effects like moves, rotations, gradients, etc. as well as 3D graphical objects manipulations. Much effort as been put by browser vendor to support hardware acceleration for CSS3 rendering. However, the standard is not yet mature and today requires using prefixes specific to each browser.
  • Application-oriented advancements in the browser, as well as matching JavaScript APIs: the Web Workers offering background and concurrent execution capabilities; a Web Storage allowing simple local data storage and manipulation in XML; and a Web SQL Database  providing the capability to perform SQL queries on large amounts of data stored locally and replicated from a server.
  • Mobile-oriented advancements (not yet finalised in the specs) including JavaScript APIs for Geolocation, Device and File APIs
  • Miscellaneous additions catering for the Semantic Web (microdata), security (cross-domain HTTP requests), and more.

To the above set of technologies standardised by the W3C we should add a domain that has sprung out of both proprietary or open-source efforts: high-performance JavaScript runtimes within browsers and JavaScript Application Frameworks. The latter extend the capabilities of the web, turning it into a full-blown client-side application platform much in the same way that UI and application frameworks like Qt or Gtk extend the “bare” Linux OS framebuffer. Such application frameworks include complementary JavaScript APIs, and rely on CSS3 to provide extensive sets of UI controls. Some mobile-specific frameworks (like Phonegap or BONDI, an offspring of the mobile operator community) go as far as providing additional device APIs for smartphone features like messaging or camera, while others provide a rich set of UI controls mimicking the native platform look & feel (more on this later).

Why the clash with Flash ?
There’s no denying that the capabilities brought forward by the emergence of the HTML5 “family” bring browser runtimes on a par with core capabilities of the Flash Player, which if adopted widely could make Flash redundant.

In the eyes of most mobile industry observers, the delays in bringing out a fully-featured Flash Player with acceptable performance on smartphones have played in favour of HTML5. Remember that, as of today, Flash Player v10.1 is only available for high-end smartphones that run the Android version 2.2 operating system. I would estimate that these represent only 1% of the overall smartphone shipments in Q2. This is a far shot from Adobe’s self proclaimed goal of having Flash shipping on 50% of smartphones by 2012 (see my previous article on this topic).

Figure: Smartphone Operating Systems – Q2 2010 Shipments share (source: Gartner, Google)

Company Browser / OS HTML5 compliance
Nokia Symbian S60 5th Ed. 7%
RIM Blackberry v5 0%
RIM Blackberry v6 (Torch)* 69%
Google Android v2.1* 50%
Google Android v2.2* 59%
Apple Safari for iPhone (iOS 4.0)* 62%
Microsoft IE Mobile (Winmob 6.5) 0%
Opera Opera Mini (on iPhone) 9%

Figure: HTML5 compliance of mobile browsers
[some notes on the methodology: HTML5 compliance was carried out using (*) denotes a WebKit-based browser. The Nokia Symbian S60 browser, albeit based on an old version of WebKit, scores poorly in HTML5 compliance tests. I could not test Mozilla Fennec, Palm’s WebOS browser, nor Opera Mobile.Opera Mini is a special case due to server-side rendering.]

Making things worse, Apple has stayed firm on its policy to not allow the Flash Player browser plugin on its iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch), preferring to rely on its in-house video streaming capabilities developed within its HTML5-capable WebKit browser core and QuickTime player. And to make things even more complicated, Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash” have played a key role in fanning the flames of the “Flash is dead, long live HTML5” fire.

Moreover, Google’s Android, Palm’s WebOS and, more recently, RIM’s Blackberry also embed web browsers based on WebKit that score very high in terms of HTML5 compliance, as can be seen in the table above.

Thanks to WebKit, half of the smartphones being shipped are poised to have the Flash-like capabilities brought by “HTML5” built into their browsers. However, let’s not rush in declaring Flash “dead” and Adobe a company in decline as a result.

Does HTML5 matter to Adobe ?
HTML5 is actually good for Adobe’s business. Indeed most of Adobe’s revenues do not come from Flash as can be seen by breaking down the Flash product portfolio::

  • The Flash Professional tool, is the authoring software for creating Flash content. It ships standalone or within the Creative Suite bundle. This is where Adobe makes its money as can be seen from the “Creative Solutions” BU share of the chart on the side (courtesy of Business Insider’s “Chart of the Day” series). Creative Suite also includes the massively popular Dreamweaver web design tool, and Illustrator, a vector graphics design tool, both of which which are now starting to incorporate HTML5/CSS3 design capabilities. Adobe has also hinted that Dreamweaver will be able to convert Flash timeline animations to Javascript/CSS3 code to render those animations in “HTML5” compliant browsers. This means that “HTML5” will not be a threat to Adobe’s main source of revenue. On the contrary, since there are few good commercial web design tools, the rise of “HTML5” will spur demand for Adobe products.
  • The Flash Player: the plug-in is free and is therefore represents  an R&D cost for Adobe. No impact there. One might argue that, if HTML5 were to totally eliminate the need for the Flash Player, it would the positively impact Adobe’s bottom line in the unlikely event the company were to lay off the entire Flash Player team 🙂
  • The Flash “Platform”: “auxiliary” products that rely on the Flash Player include the Flash Media Server and Flash Access product ranges, licensed to organisations that use Flash to deliver streamed video content (e.g. Hulu, Influxis, Brightcove). The “Platform” also includes the commercial Flash Builder IDE allowing the development of Rich Internet Applications (and the associated free and open-source Flex framework). As can be seen in the chart, these represent a minute proportion of Adobe’s revenue. As we will see further down, these products are not going to disappear overnight due to the emergence of HTML5.

However, HTML5 does put competitive pressure on the product management and engineering teams responsible for the Flash Player to out-innovate the evolutions in browser technology. Adobe points out that this is “business as usual for them” as –they say- it was never their intention to fully replace the browser altogether, but rather complement its capabilities with innovative features, and harmonise areas in which standards have been implemented in an inconsistent fashion across browser runtimes.

As an engineering-driven company, Adobe aims for Flash to stay one step ahead of HTML5 technology implementations, as it already is today in numerous areas. Indeed, an agile R&D division within a single corporate entity will always be faster than a “snail driven by a committee” as the W3C HTML5 spec bodies have been dubbed by some.

Some areas where Adobe is pushing the envelope for the Flash Player include 3D rendering with hardware acceleration, concurrency support, IP TVs and peer-to-peer media delivery. The latter is an interesting transposition of the file-sharing P2P concept; imagine tens of millions of users watching the same live video coverage of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. No server farm or CDN today is capable of sustaining such a peak demand. By allowing instances of the Flash Player across millions of peers to share chunks of the video stream at the edge of the network could be the answer to the problem.

Beyond innovation, another aspect to factor in is that HTML5 is still in its early stages of implementation across browsers, with Microsoft’s uber-popular Internet Explorer browser today lacking any form of HTML5 support whilst representing close to 60% of the web user base (see chart below). Even with the IE9 beta improving HTML5 support and other browsers consistently gaining market share it will still take some years before HTML5-capable desktop browsers dominate the installed base. This will justify the existence of Flash in the desktop browser space for years to come and give some leeway to Adobe’s engineering teams in designing more innovative capabilities.

Desktop browser market share

Company Browser HTML5 compliance
Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 beta 32%
Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 9%
Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 4%
Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 0%
Mozilla Firefox 4 beta 5 68%
Mozilla Firefox 3.6 46%
Mozilla Firefox 3.5 42%
Google Chrome v6 72%
Apple Safari v5 69%
Opera Opera browser v10 53%

Figure: Desktop web browsers users share and level of HTML5 compliance
(sources: wikipedia and test conducted with

Reality check: comparing Flash and HTML5 in key areas
So how is Flash vs HTML5 faring today? For review purposes we can single-out a few key areas of Flash and HTML5 competition, specifically display advertising, video delivery, games and application development.

Display Advertising: a slight advantage for Flash
One of the main use cases for Flash (and big source of annoyance to web users) is display advertising. “Display” adverts are animated banners that appear at the top, side or overlaid in front of the web content you. As annoying as they may be, display ads are a necessary evil for the online world since they represent 40% of the revenues that the digital content and e-commerce ecosystems live on. Even Google uses Flash in its DoubleClick Studio rich advert SDK for advertisers.

Some have said that because HTML5 will kill Flash, those annoying ads will disappear. I would rather think that they may be replaced by equivalents designed in HTML5/CSS3, with the caveat that they may look crappier in most of today’s browsers than their Flash counterparts, as can be seen from these examples.

Indeed a point often overlooked is that today’s HTML5 graphical rendering capabilities are at the level of what Flash capabilities were some years ago and CSS3 transforms allowing to design good “eye-candy” are inconsistently supported across browsers. Therefore I would argue that advertisers will hold back from using “HTML5” for display ad creation in the medium term. The lack of proper HTML5/CSS design tools will also delay this technology adoption by design agencies and creative professionals especially within  industry circles where Flash is deeply entrenched.

On mobile devices, the situation will be no different. The blue legos now seen on iPad and iPhones may soon be replaced by HTML5 counterparts; or even by iAds. However, as of today, Apple is the only company creating iAds (in the process levying a hefty ad tax) and is reported to be struggling with the demands of advertisers with its in-house HTML5-based ad creation tools and technologies.

Video Delivery: advantage for Flash
Another area in which “HTML5” has been touted a “Flash killer” is online video delivery. Let’s have a look. As far as basic video playback is concerned, Flash and HTML5’s <video> tag provide the same capabilities, so why not ditch Flash and avoid to end users the (relatively minimal) hassle of installing a plugin?

The situation is not as simple as it sounds as the various browser vendors do not yet all support the same video codecs. On one side, Apple and Microsoft are proponents of H.264; Google is pushing its opensource WebM codec (formerly the proprietary VP8 codec that it inherited through the acquisition of On2/Sorenson); and Mozilla and Opera by default supporting the free and opensource Ogg Theora.

This poses a challenge to online video publishers like YouTube since they then have to re-encode their content multiple times to support each codec.

To end users, this means that videos may not be available in the format supported by their browser. Flash on the other hand, even though it requires videos to be packaged in the FLV container format (not to be confused with encodings like H.264), is available across all desktop browsers and is used as a reliable fallback by “HTML5” web developers i.e. for the 50% or so of IE end-users whose browser can’t render the <video> tag.

Furthermore, the Flash Player supports advanced capabilities required by online publishers such as DRM protection (crucial for pay-per-view business models) and picture-in-picture overlay of multiple video sources with alpha-blending (e.g. for e-learning or overlay of contextual adverts). These capabilities may not be offered for years with the <video> tag in HTML5 browsers.

Casual Games and Visualizations
Flash is the technology that powers some massively popular “casual games” (such as Zynga‘s Farmville or Mafia Wars) played by millions of Facebook users worldwide. It also powers numerous other Facebook applications. There was earlier this year a rumor that Zynga was converting its titles to HTML5 to be able to run on the iPhone and iPad. This turned out not to be true, as it announced at Apple’s WWDC that it had ported Farmville to the iPhone as a native app; which may be interpreted as a sign that “HTML5” was not up to the task.

farmville.320x480-75 Another area in which today Flash is massively popular is that of visualizations and generative art. There is a large and enthusiastic community that has turned Flash animation into a true art form. Artists like Erik Natzke or Yugo Nakamura (of the Tha agency) are prominent examples of this community. To date, I have not seen any such artistic usage of “HTML5” technologies.

Other “HTML5” demos that have received a lot of media attention are Google’s “bubbles” doodle earlier this month, its experiment with Arcade Fire or a port of Quake to JavaScript using GWT. However, I do not yet see casual games developers or visualization artists migrating “en masse” away from Flash. This may be explained by the fact that those experiments in “HTML5” remain CPU-intensive and RAM-hungry (more than Flash in most cases), while designer-grade tools are lacking, and the fragmentation between browsers makes Flash a lot more dependable.

Applications Development: a draw
Web app development is another technology domain where the HTML5 family of technologies has been contending with Flash.

We have seen earlier that “HTML5” provides most core capabilities needed to run local applications, including code execution, storage and access to the screen. These core capabilities are now complemented by a flurry of web application frameworks that rely on JavaScript / CSS: DoJo, JQuery, MooTools and Sproutcore, to name a few. Google’s Web Toolkit (GWT) represents a particular case since it is a framework + tools package that allows to code a web application in Java and convert it to JavaScript for execution in the browsers (note how Gmail, Buzzz and other Google apps are built with GWT).

More recently, these frameworks have been forked into mobile variants: JQuery Mobile, Sproutcore Touch and Sencha Touch. Sendra is actually a case in point: the developer company raised $14 million in venture capital, a testament to the significant size of the business opportunity, and has jokingly proclaimed “The End Of Native” (see photo).

This abundance of JavaScript frameworks may be encouraging, but also represents a dizzying array of choices for the developer. This diversity limits the degree of industry-wide code reusability and fragments the pool of Javascript app developers into vertical niches.

This diversity further plays in favour of Adobe’s own web applications platform AIR (a sibling to the Flash Player) and the associated Flex framework, which uses the Actionscript programming language and allows XML-driven UI design through its MXML language.

In my own experience, seasoned developers find ActionScript and MXML a much better programming paradigm than Javascript frameworks in most developer aspects; code reuse, team productivity, tools support, debugging and ease of UI design.

In conclusion, the momentum behind web applications thanks to “HTML5”’s core capabilities and associated frameworks may seem unstopable, especially as it is driven by technology behemoths like Google and a large enthusiastic community. However this optimism is mitigated by the lack of developer productivity and the rising popularity of Adobe’s application development technologies.

What of the Future ?
Based on the earlier analysis, Flash is far from dead today. There are many cases in which Flash will continue to offer a better alternative (worst case a very useful fallback) to “HTML5” technologies due to the fragmentation in new web standards browser support.

To the question : “will HTML5 kill Flash?” there is no single answer. It all depends on which use case is considered and in what timescale.

On the desktop front, it is the lack of HTML5 capabilities in IE8/9 and their immaturity in all other browsers, that will secure the future of Flash in the medium term. At the same time, Adobe is under pressure from Microsoft, Google and Apple who are betting huge R&D budgets in the development of HTML5-capable browsers and who should be able to out-innovate Adobe in the longer term.

On mobile, the Flash Player is still in its infancy, while WebKit-based browsers are sharply rising towards ubiquity (250 million and counting as of end 2009). This gives the “HTML5 camp” an edge today, especially in the area of basic video playback and mobile web applications for which numerous JavaScript/CSS3 mobile frameworks are available. Looking forward however, Flash may still better HTML5 on mobile for use cases like casual games and animated graphics given its greater dependability and its widespread usage today in those communities.

Where would you place *your* bet?

– Guilhem

[Guilhem Ensuque is Director of Product Marketing at OpenPlug. He has more than twelve years of experience in the areas of mobile software and mobile telecoms. Guilhem was a speaker at last year’s Adobe MAX conference. His favorite pastimes (beyond mobile software strategy!) include making his baby daughter smile and sailing his Hobie Cat with his girlfriend. You should follow Guilhem on twitter @gensuque_op]

An X-ray of Mobile Software: The 11 vital organs of mobile

[Sales of mobile phones remain healthy, but can the same be said of the software designed for them? Guest author Morten Grauballe offers a biological metaphor to check the pulse and visualise the evolution of the mobile software business.]

The app store “Long Tail” has recently dominated strategy discussions in the mobile industry. The Long Tail is a captivating and inspiring notion that challenges companies to think beyond mass production and mass retailing. The mobile software market is, however, far from mass production and mass retailing. Tight coupling of software and hardware, combined with platform fragmentation, have created a mass market for mobile phones, but not for mobile software. Hence, the tail is wagging the dog (and its organs) in the mobile software strategy discussion.

I ‘d like to use a biological metaphor – the notion of the 11-Organ System – to represent the core value-adding elements in mobile software and discuss how Apple, China Mobile, DoCoMo, Google, Nokia and RIM have utilised these core organs to their benefit. The 11 Organs interact to create the mobile software.

The Long Tail App Store
The Long Tail concept was coined in a 2004 article by Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson to describe the notion that a large share of consumer needs rest within the tail of a statistical normal distribution. From a marketer’s perspective, this means you need to sell large quantities of unique items – each in small quantities – often combined with large quantities of a few very popular items.

The idea was coined to describe phenomena in online retailing where companies such as Amazon for books and eBay for auctions were able to cater – profitably – to very small, unique segments of the market. The digital economy allows these retailers to decouple stock from purchase. Later, the notion was proven to apply to some of the most successful business models today, namely Apple’s iTunes music store and Google’s search advertising model.

Lately, the Long Tail has been used to describe and propagate one of the biggest hype waves in the mobile market, namely the app store. Apple recently passed 200,000 applications in its store; fanning the enthusiasm for all major players to develop their own app store strategy.

Whereas books, auctions, music, and to some extent search are well-understood businesses with relatively straight-forward Long Tail effects, the essence of the mobile software business is generally not well understood and analyzed. So, before we pin the app store Long Tail on Eeyore, it is worth taking off the blindfold in an attempt to understand the essence of mobile software.

The Organ Systems of Mobile Software
Like biological systems, the software on mobile phones has value-creating subsystems. The Long Tail app store is like the tail on mammals. It does not have a function without being attached to a healthy body full of strong and interconnected value-creating systems. Apple knows this. Google knows this. Nokia knows this. DoCoMo knows this. They all have strategies in place for these value-creating systems.

Mammals generally have 11 organ systems (see note at the end of the article for a biology refresh). To stay true to my metaphor, I break down the most advanced smartphones into 11 organ systems – five core infrastructure systems and six application level systems. There are of course many more ways these systems can be broken down (see VisionMobile’s Industry Atlas for examples).

The five infrastructure core systems are:

  • Operating system: On a high level, the key value of an operating system is to be found in the abstraction of the hardware into a set of APIs against which applications can be written. More fundamentally, this process of abstraction has a significant impact on the characteristics of the system, including usability, battery life and privacy. There is a long discussion taking place within the industry as to whether the OS is a commodity or not – I believe not, but I ‘ll leave that debate is for future article. Let’s instead list the current choices available in the mobile market: Android, Bada, Blackberry OS, Brew Mobile Platform (BMP), iPhone OS, LiMo, Maemo, MediaTek OS, Nucleus, Series 40, STE OS, Symbian, Web OS and Windows Phone OS.
  • Application Execution Environments (AEEs): Most phones have one or more AEEs that attract developers and hence enhance the ability to “wag the tail”. The list of AEEs is long, but should include Java, Flash, widget and and web runtimes. AEEs and operating systems are generally complementary, but as the recent spat between Adobe and Apple has shown, these value-creating systems do not always coexist peacefully.
  • Software Management System: From a strategy analysis perspective, this is probably one of the fastest developing value-creating subsystems. Software management addresses two ‘bodily functions’:
    • The in-the-hands user experience. Apple has made 22 versions available for its phones since June 29, 2007. That is one release every 6 weeks. Most of the features released have addressed the user experience by enhancing features or the usage of features. In the end, this generates revenue and builds an ongoing relationship with the user.
    • Repair and correction. The ability to protect the phone depends on the strength of the security system (see below), but also on the system’s ability to respond to issues in the system, whether malware or not. Software Management allows us to respond with new pieces of software when needed.
  • Security System: The security system is very similar to the integumentary and lymphatic systems in humans. It protects the system from external threats. Parts of the security system should be built into the operating system, but other parts are application-level components, such as lock and wipe of the device.
  • Business Intelligence System: Similar to the nervous system, the business intelligence system allows you to understand what is going on in the entire organism. This ranges from understanding usability issues over performance problems to actual defects in the system. You want to know what works and what does not work for the particular user, which apps are used the most, which services work and which not, how does service usage vary across devices, etc.

The six core application systems are:

  • Peer-to-Peer Communication: Voice communication is often overlooked in strategy discussions of mobile software, but it is one of the most used applications on any mobile phone. It might be a baseline feature, but it needs to be done well. Integration with other value-adding subsystems is quite important too.
  • Peer-to-Peer Messaging: This includes everything from SMS over instant messaging to push e-mail applications. Similar to peer-to-peer communication, it is generally not considered sexy at this stage of the market. It is however the second largest revenue generator after voice communication and thus should not be disregarded.
  • Search: Most phones already have Web search functions. However, the future of search is in the location-based services (LBS) area, where digital search is combined with the physical presence of the user. Advertising is a part of this subsystem as it connects sellers with buyers of products and services.
  • Content Creation: The biggest craze in the market is social networking. Every new phone has social networking capabilities galore closely integrated into the contact manager. Content creation, however, also includes pictures, video and other types of media produced by the consumer. Most of the data produced by the consumer needs to be shared somehow. That is where the key value creation of the mobile phone comes in.. sharing!
  • Content Consumption: Compared to creation, content consumption is so yesterday. The consumer expects easy access to a catalogue of games, music, video, etc.
  • Browsing: This is such a crucial application that I have classified it as a system of its own. The browser is used as the basis of many of the other systems. Actually, most of the other applications can run via the browser and hence it is even possible to classify the browsing subsystem as an infrastructure subsystem.

Choose your Organs before Pinning on the Long Tail
There is no need to have the perfect business model for each of the mobile software organ systems above, but you need to have considered all of them and, if possible, have three or four strong organs to support an independent software strategy that can then carry a Long Tail app store. Let’s consider a few examples:

  • Apple has been the most aggressive on the OS side, publishing native APIs to developers and building a large developer community. Apple’s software management strategy is well-synced with its OS development and is a real strength. With iTunes Apple also is very well placed in media consumption. Apple’s weaknesses are in the areas of AEEs and search.
  • China Mobile has recently put its weight behind the OPhone, which is running a completely customized branch of Android. The OPhone version of Android is managed by a company called Borqs. At launch, handsets were available from Dell, HTC and Lenovo with plans for further handset models from Samsung, ZTE, Phillips, Motorola and LG. By having Borqs in between Google and themselves, CMCC achieves greater ownership of the operating system and its APIs. This is, of course, expensive as Borqs need to track new versions of Android and migrate China Mobile-specific changes across to the new versions of the OPhone OS.
  • DoCoMo has traditionally been focused on content-consumption and browsing with its i-mode services. i-mode nicely mixes Java, Browsing, Flash and e-mail into a very strong application suite. Customers know what they are getting. These services are built on top of two different operating systems, namely Linux and Symbian. So far, DoCoMo has not exposed native APIs to developers, but has focused on Java. The content market is therefore very strong in Japan, but the software application market is not well developed. Recently, DoCoMo has released its first Android handset, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, which gives it access to the Android market. This is the company’s first experience with an application market.
  • Google has combined the introduction of the Android operating with a strong suite of applications (Gmail, Google Maps, GTalk and Android market). While on the surface Android is an open source project, you only get access to the application suite if you agree to Google’s commercial terms.  There is no surprise that Google’s strengths come from its applications – it has less control of the core infrastructure components.
  • RIM has full control of its OS and has used Java as the AEE to create a third-party community of developers. The real strength in the RIM offering, however, is peer-to-peer messaging and this is the subsystem that ties RIM to its users. Over the last three years, RIM has made improvements to the subsystems that are more focused on mass-market consumers, such as content consumption/creation, but it is not considered to be its strength.
  • Nokia is active in all the subsystems above. Focus is probably one of the weaknesses of the Nokia offering. Traditionally, Nokia has been focused on peer-to-peer messaging and communication, but recently it has moved aggressively into search and content consumption, which are emerging as their new areas of strength.

Taking inspiration from Blue Ocean Strategy, it is possible to create an Organ Map. I have included an example below. (Each area included in this map warrants its own discussion, so please take it as an educated view rather than a universal statement of truth).

Getting started on your own Organ Map
Any serious player looking at the app store Long Tail needs to look at the organ system above and decide how to build a serious software strategy first. Some companies, like HP with their Palm acquisition, are at a cross-road and should make tough choices up-front. Others are in the middle of executing on their software strategy and need to evaluate progress. In both cases, key questions to answer are:

–        Which organ systems are the focus of my strategy?

–        What is the right mix of core organs to application organs?

–        What level of control do you want to exert over each organ system?

–        How will the chosen organ system allow me to build a relationship with my customer?

–        How do the organ systems interact to realize value for the customer?

–        How are my organ systems mapping against the competition?

Through the discussion around these questions, you should document the criteria by which you and your organizations determine the scoring of each organ system. That will answer questions like, what is a high-end offering in the browser space and who is offering this in the market.

To have a truly independent strategy, the choice of organ systems need to include at least one core organ system over which you can exert a high-degree of control. This does not have to be complete ownership of the organ system, but you should be able to determine the roadmap and direction of the organ system.

The Long Tail as a Greenhouse for New Organ Systems
Once you have a nice set of organ systems up and running, the real point of the Long Tail app store is to act as a greenhouse for new organ systems. By monitoring the sales statistics and trends on your app store, you get a very good view (from your business intelligence system) as to what the next organ system might be.

It is no coincidence Apple just added iAd to iPhone OS v4. They are on top of their business intelligence game and have been tracking advertising in their app store for a while. As apps or features develop into viable businesses, they get promoted from the tail to the body. They become new organ systems for the value-creation machine called Apple.

What are your own thoughts on strategy as a biology metaphor? What other examples of use of software-based organ systems have you come across? What Organ Systems does HP currently have that would render Palm as successful business? Which new ones should they build?

– Morten

[Morten Grauballe is EVP Marketing at Red Bend and ex VP Product Management at Symbian, and has been in the mobile industry long enough to boast both scars and medals]

Note 1: The 11 major organ systems of the body are:

(1) The integumentary system is the organ system that protects the body from damage – it includes nails, skin, hair, fat, etc. This is the largest system making up ~16% of the human body.

(2) The skeletal system is the structural support system with bones, cartilage, ligaments and tendons.

(3) The muscular system is the anatomical system of a species that allows it to move.

(4) The nervous system is an organ system containing a network of specialized cells called neurons that coordinate the actions of an animal and transmit signals between different parts of its body

(5) The endocrine system is a system of glands, each of which secretes a type of hormone to regulate the body. The endocrine system is an information signal system much like the nervous system. Hormones regulate many functions of an organism, including mood, growth and development, tissue function, and metabolism.

(6) The circulatory system is an organ system that passes nutrients (such as amino acids and electrolytes), gases, hormones, blood cells, etc. to and from cells in the body

(7) The lymphatic system in vertebrates is a network of conduits that carry a clear fluid called lymph. It is used to fight diseases and transport fluids from the cells.

(8) The respiratory system’s function is to allow oxygen exchange through all parts of the body.

(9) The digestive system is the organ system responsible for the mechanical and chemical breaking down of food into smaller components that can be absorbed into the blood stream.

(10) The urinary system is the organ system that produces, stores, and eliminates urine.

(11) The reproductive system is a system of organs within an organism that work together for the purpose of reproduction.