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Mobile Web Development with WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal : HOW DEVICES ARE CHANGING

1/17/2013 11:24:02 AM
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As with most technical products, almost any given characteristic of a product improves with time or increasing price — or normally both. Many features unique to luxury cars a decade ago are likely to be standard on average models today.

With mobile devices, things are no different — although the pace of change is almost certainly far more rapid than in the automotive industry! Groundbreaking features in high-end phones (for example, the accelerometer hardware in the original iPhone) are found broadly across the mass-market a few years after their initial development.

That high-end phone's capabilities become commonplace a year or two later can be a useful rule-of-thumb. Although we should be cautious about developing solely for glamorous handsets at the top-end of the market at any given time, by studying those handsets we get a good sense of what is coming for a larger population of users one or two years later. And with the average user replacing her primary mobile device every 18 months or so, the turnover to new devices is high, and capabilities that were once seen as being niche rapidly become commodities.

1. Physical Characteristics

Mobile devices long ago reached an overall size and weight that was suitable to hold and use comfortably, and in this regard, the physical dimensions of models now change little from year to year. Despite these ergonomic constraints, product design is in constant evolution. But as a developer, you are most concerned about understanding those capabilities and limitations that affect your work. We look at some of these now.

1.1. Screen Technology

One of the most significant changes that modern mobile devices have compared to their recent predecessors is the way in which the screen has changed. The dull and limited screen on a mobile device even, say, 5 years ago, is a far cry from the glorious high-resolution and high-color depth that mobile users are increasingly familiar with today. In the U.S. market, a breakthrough device in this regard was certainly the Apple iPhone in 2007. Covering nearly the entire front face of the device, the screen offered what was, at the time, a considerable resolution of 320 × 480 pixels, with a density of over 160 pixels per inch. Little more than a year later, such screens were common on a range of other handsets. Nokia's 5800 XPressMusic, which was described by some as a mass-market alternative to the iPhone, offered a 360 × 640 pixel display (230 pixels per inch), as shown in Figure 1.

Things are still moving quickly in screen technology. The Google Nexus One, released in early 2010, features a large and bright 480 × 800 pixel display. Apple's iPhone 4, shown in Figure 2, was released in mid-2010 and upped the high-end of screen dimensions even further, to 640 × 960 pixels, and with a dramatically increased density of over 320 pixels per inch.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

For a mobile web developer, this is very exciting. High resolution means more real estate for graphical designs and layouts, and higher pixel density means better text legibility and smoother textures. However, it seems that the physical size of large mobile device screens has settled at around 3 to 4 inches (on the diagonal), and this is likely to remain a common characteristic, at least until retractable or flexible screens emerge.

Figure 3 demonstrates just how fast mobile device screens have evolved. The screens are shown to the scale of their pixels, and yet physically the two iPhone devices are the same size: The iPhone 4 pixels are a mere quarter of the size of those of the original.

Figure 3.

For a developer, this raises several interesting considerations. First is the matter of detecting what device your user is visiting your site with and catering to the diversity of dimensions accordingly. But pixels themselves are now dropping in size so significantly that it may no longer make sense to think in terms of that unit alone. An icon on a new iPhone screen could theoretically appear a quarter of its size on the original model, making it less legible to the user.

As this hardware trend continues, you should expect devices to provide software-based scaling techniques to map CSS and HTML pixels to suitable physical pixels (and indeed the iPhone 4 does this in Mobile Safari). This means that developers and designers need to keep their wits about them when using explicit sizes in their mobile layouts — especially because it's likely that not all browser vendors will implement such algorithms in a consistent way.

1.2. Input Mechanisms

Previously limited to simply providing small and fiddly numeric keypads with one or two control keys, mobile devices have changed radically with respect to input technologies over the last few years. Although several manufacturers, notably Palm, HTC, and Sony Ericsson (whose P800 model from 2002 is pictured in Figure 4), pioneered models with touch-sensitive screens throughout the decade, these were generally best used with a stylus or in conjunction with additional physical keyboards. Devices with dedicated QWERTY keyboards that either folded or slid out from devices had, for the most part, niche appeal.

Figure 4.

Yet again, the release of Apple's iPhone in 2007 heralded a significant change in the way the industry (and of course users) thought about user interfaces. Its minimal design of placing a single button on the fascia expected users to rely purely on using their fingers on the capacitive screen to interact with the device. Text entry (whether numeric or alphanumeric) was provided through on-screen virtual keyboards that became visible when required, and multi-touch capabilities allowed applications to support such gestures as pinching and panning.

The success of the iPhone and the ease with which users appeared to welcome this new input paradigm set a benchmark for the rest of the mobile industry. Nearly all new high-range and many mid-range handsets now provide touch-screen input interfaces similar to the original iPhone's (although Apple's models remain unusual in having only one main physical button).

This trend is set to continue, and as the cost of manufacturing touch-screen technology falls, developers should expect more devices — at all levels of the market — to provide touch screens. This creates great opportunities to design website interfaces in ways that capitalize on users' touch, pinch, and swipe gestures and that, thanks to soft QWERTY keyboards — which are rapidly improving in quality too — need not be so cautious about relying on textual input.

1.3. Other Hardware Components

Modern mobile devices are comprised of many components, and technological developments affect them all. The following are some important areas of rapid evolution for the mobile device, both currently and likely in the near future:

  • Cameras — Most mobile devices now sport digital cameras with anywhere between 3 and 8 megapixel resolution considered a norm. This is undoubtedly set to rise, as it has done with dedicated camera hardware: At the time of this writing, many Japanese mobile devices provide camera resolution of 12 megapixels or more. The size of the resulting images is of interest to mobile web developers as devices start to provide JavaScript API access to camera hardware.

  • Location and orientation — A modern mobile device is increasingly likely to come furnished with a GPS receiver (which geolocates it), accelerometers (which detect its motion about an axis), and gyroscopes and a compass (which detect its orientation and direction). The data produced by these instruments is also starting to become available via browser APIs, allowing web developers to use them in sites or location-based services.

  • Video and TV capabilities — Although devices have long been capable of playing video clips and simple streams, improved screens and download speeds make viewing high-quality video increasingly feasible for many users. High-end devices now come furnished with HDMI connectivity so that the screen can be extended onto high-definition television sets. Improved cameras also improve the quality of user-generated video, and the introduction of a front-facing camera in Apple's iPhone 4 may re-energize popular interest in video calling. And while not yet mainstream elsewhere, most handsets in Japan contain built-in TV tuners for receiving digital terrestrial broadcasts. Some handsets even come with stands so they can explicitly be used as viewing consoles.

  • Near Field Communication — Still in trials in most parts of the world, devices supporting NFC make it possible to touch a device (or hold it near) to a fixed terminal to perform a transaction of some sort. Potential applications obviously include commerce, ticketing, and other types of presence-based interactions. The use of NFC is already widespread in the Japanese market and could provide dramatic business opportunities if it proves successful elsewhere.

2. Network Technology

Mobile device manufacturers clearly have the Olympic motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger" in mind when developing their products, and network speed, throughput, and connection strength are indeed continuous areas of improvement. Changes to network technology occur on a slightly slower cycle than some of the other characteristics in a mobile device (such as screen size, as you've seen). A couple of main reasons account for this. First, the network usage of a mobile device has one of the largest impacts on the device's battery life (which is why the "talk-time" and "standby-time" metrics for a mobile device are so different), so the support for new network standards is somewhat constrained by developments in battery and power technology. Second, support in a device for a new network technology is useless if there is no network to connect to. And naturally it takes longer to upgrade mobile carrier infrastructure to a next-generation technology than it does to upgrade the device alone.

Nevertheless, the advances in latency and throughput do tend to be significant with subsequent generations of mobile technology: Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks of the future may be hundreds of times faster than the 3G and 3.5G networks of today. Most new mid- and high-end devices now support at least one variant of WiFi, which also far exceed those speeds. New handsets supporting WiMAX are also emerging.

Clearly, this has a huge and generally positive impact on mobile web development. If you can be sure of your users having low-latency connectors and fast download speeds, your sites and designs can be richer and larger and yet remain responsive.


But as ever, there is a major challenge: You can't be sure! While it's possible to detect the device being used and ascertain a maximum theoretical speed — and perhaps even deduce whether the connection is cellular or WiFi-based, using IP address tables — you still can't be sure what strength or reliability of connection the user has. Is she stationary in a coffee shop in a quiet part of town, or walking briskly through a congested urban cell? The environment can radically affect the network characteristics.

3. Operating Systems

One final aspect of device evolution that should be addressed is the mobile device operating system. This comprises the layer of software that controls the device hardware and provides APIs for applications to run on that device. However, you may also think of the whole operating system as including its common user interface components and default applications that ship with the device, such as mail clients, web browsers, telephony tools, and so on.

Traditionally, mobile devices have provided fairly simple embedded operating systems, suited to users performing a small number of tasks — such as telephony — very efficiently within the hardware's memory and processing constraints. These operating systems, such as Nokia's Series 30 and 40 platforms, rarely allow native third-party applications to be installed (other than via sandboxed environments such as Java's J2ME) and are generally not promoted to users as being a particular feature of a given device.

More recently, however, there has been a marked shift toward more powerful operating systems on mobile devices, again starting with smart phones at the high end of the market. Most significantly, these operating systems allow third-party developers to write and deploy applications (with varying degrees of freedom) to the devices. These are some of the major modern mobile operating systems:

  • Symbian — This operating system, which evolved from being used on PDA devices in the early 2000s, was one of the first of such platforms. Adopted by Nokia for its smart phone devices under the moniker "Series 60" and used by manufacturers such as Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and Sharp, Symbian is currently the most popular mobile operating system, as measured by smart phone shipments worldwide and, importantly, is currently going through the process of becoming open source. Nevertheless, it is considered to have a steep learning curve for developers who want to write native apps for it, and it has suffered in popularity in this respect in comparison to Apple or Android development. Nokia's stated ambition is to replace Symbian with a new operating system, MeeGo, in its high-end device portfolio.

  • RIM's BlackBerry OS and Apple's iOS — These operating systems are designed for the two companies' respective devices and are both proprietary. Nevertheless, the ease with which developers can write native software for these platforms — as well as the increasing popularity of those devices — has driven a huge growth in application development for them.

  • Microsoft Windows Phone — A family of operating systems (previously also known by the Windows CE and Windows Mobile brands), Microsoft's operating systems have generally targeted enterprise-market devices in the United States. It is currently too early to say how successful its latest incarnation, Windows Phone 7, will be.

  • Google Android — An open-source operating system based on Linux, Android is one of the most recent mobile operating systems to be launched. Considered by some to be a significant threat to Apple's iOS platform — partly due to similarities in the user interface, but also because of the ease with which developers can write and deploy powerful client apps for it — Android is already enjoying fast-growing popularity, particularly in high-end devices sold in the United States.

The relevance of these platforms for a web developer is just as significant as it is for those writing native client apps (although naturally, developing services that work across multiple platforms is much easier with web technologies). Many of these operating systems, particularly iOS, Android, and Palm's Web OS, were designed and created in an age when powerful processing, fast networks, high-quality screens, and touch capabilities were assumed of the device's hardware — and when the importance of the Web to the mobile user was already well understood. (And those platforms with an older heritage, such as Symbian and Windows Phone, are being developed or superseded quickly to try and catch up in all these respects.)

So it's no surprise that one of the common characteristics that accompanies all these contemporary operating systems is the quality of their default mobile browsers. Users of smart phone devices now expect to be able to read, scroll, zoom, and flick their way through web pages displayed on bright, clear screens. The huge strides that have been made in mobile browsing technology have been driven in large part by the competition between these platforms.

But, for web developers, huge improvements have also come about through cooperation that has taken place between platforms: it's notable that nearly all the browsers shipped on these operating systems share a common heritage. With the exception of Windows Phone (which ships with a mobile version of Microsoft's desktop Internet Explorer browser), they are all derived from the open source WebKit project.

So how will the operating system environment evolve in coming years? Certainly, Apple has a strong grasp of the discerning mobile market with its iPhone models, and by sharing the operating system with its iPad tablet device, the company has made a strong bet on the strategic future of iOS. BlackBerry continues to hold strong sway in the enterprise sector, but has also made strides in the youth and text-centric market. With its decision to also use a WebKit-based browser from v6.0 of the operating system onward, it also continues to be a more-than-capable web platform.

Surely, Google's Android operating system is a platform in the ascendency. With the company's strong technical and financial backing, and in conjunction with a number of popular handset manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung, LG, and Motorola, the number of Android-enabled handsets is rising dramatically. The operating system appears to have an aggressive and exciting technical roadmap and is expected to become more widespread in years to come.

Microsoft's mobile operating systems have suffered in recent years through competition with iPhone, Android, and Symbian handsets. The newest version of the family, Windows Phone 7, has an entirely new user interface and is intended to recapture some of the consumer attention lost to rival platforms. Its launch in late 2010 was heralded positively by critics and developers alike, although it is still too early to tell how popular the platform will prove with consumers.

Symbian has also suffered from unfavorable comparison with the newer operating systems, and in the United States. at least, its popularity has been affected by Nokia's fortunes in a competitive market. Felt by some to now be showing its age, Nokia has announced that its new high-end handsets will, in the future, be shipped with Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform, and possibly its own experimental offering, MeeGo. Of course, it also remains to be seen how successful this new strategy becomes, and Symbian will continue to be present on existing mid- and upper-mid-range handsets in the Nokia portfolio for several years.
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