I’ve been thinking about what I deem Web 3.0 quite a bit lately, especially since I got my Blackberry 8830 and have been using it not only to get my email but also surf the web. I know, of course, that there’s a better option out there for web surfing – Apple’s iPhone – but I haven’t been prepared to plop down $500 and change service providers to get it (recent hacks not withstanding).
I have, however, had the opportunity to play with it. Through it I have seen the future, and the future is in my hand. There’s no question that the iPhone is a game changer. Already, Nokia is making moves to duplicate many of the phone’s best features and other phone manufacturers will no doubt follow suit. As these features migrate to less expensive phones on more service carriers, users will expect to surf a web that gives them as rich an experience as desktop surfing currently does, but formatted to better work on their new devices.
Up to this point, the state of the mobile web has been embarrassingly weak. Wireless web surfing is nothing new – as early as 1998, Nokia handhelds were getting stripped down information from the web using a combination of WAP and WML – but it has made little progress since its early text-heavy, poorly formatted days. Even the Blackberry 8830, with its 320×240 pixel screen size, relies still on a stripped down browser that only vaguely resembles the full web. Granted, it’s difficult to reliably surf on such a small amount of screen real estate, but most information of use to mobile users – event searches, weather information, breaking news, even blogs and special interest articles – can be easily formatted to fit the mostly text-only format of these small screens.
The problem lies, I think, in a combination poor support for web developers by mobile phone manufacturers, the obnoxiously high fees charged by service providers to access the web and web developers either unable or unwilling to provide a secondary mobile format for the sites they build, despite the ease of such work promised by technologies like DHTML and CSS.
The iPhone and its predecessors will change all this. First, with more people accessing the mobile web, developers will find themselves in a position where they must design around these new devices. The web will be ubiquitous – accessible from wherever we happen to be – and smart developers will figure this out early and be ahead of the curve. Next, the manufacturers of these phones, eager to build in a reason for consumers to want their flashy new iPhone clones, must create incentives for web designers and developers to build out the mobile web. They should do this by sponsoring existing mobile web development communities, providing white papers and tutorials and building in more hooks to make the mobile web even more useful (for example – my Blackberry comes with a built in Google Maps-like application. If I see an address on the web, I should be able to click it and select “Get Directions” as one of my options, which will take me to this map application).
The only thing that may take a while to happen is wireless service providers reducing their prices to access this mobile web, and this is where I think Apple really failed in their iPhone release. Apple had an opportunity to revolutionize the cell phone industry one step further. Recent hacks of the device have proven that the iPhone did not necessarily have to be tied to any specific service provider. The iPhone could have been released as an unlocked phone sold first through the Apple store, then through any cell phone provider store that wanted to provide service to the phone. If service providers chose not to support the phone, Apple could have provided instructions to allow purchasers to program the phone themselves to replace their existing phones. Of course, these authorized hacks wouldn’t promise free service or anything like that – heck, I’d have a good reason to pay the $50/mo Verizon charges me for email and web access.
What if the providers didn’t play along? What if they blocked the iPhone? That would be an incredibly dumb move. First of all, the iPhone is a truly drool-worthy device that drips cool. Those associated with it are automatically made cool by their association. So what if the big four – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – banded together in an unprecedented agreement to block the iPhone? That would create an opportunity for lesser carriers like Helio, Alltel and Mobile PCS to expand their user base. I get that Apple didn’t want that to happen – Jobs and Co. are notorious for wanting complete control over every aspect of their products – but that scenario is also highly unlikely. T-Mobile for certain would jump on the iPhone bandwagon, and I think the other carriers, what with the fame and fanfare the phone has generated, would be hard-pressed to not follow suit.
This would have forced the providers to compete solely on service, which is pretty horrendous across the board these days. I stick with Verizon largely because, theoretically, they have the best coverage maps, but the truth is that I just don’t know. I haven’t been able to compare services apples to apples using the same device across the board, so I truly have no idea who has the best service. Verizon only recently began offering cool phones – until recently, I would have had to switch to Cingular if I wanted features like a camera a phone, MP3 player or any of the other gewgaws being slapped into cell phones these days. Rather than competing on service, the carriers have competed instead on features and phones offered, and by going with AT&T as the sole provider I believe the iPhone made this worse. Instead, the iPhone could have changed all this by allowing users to go with the company they felt best suited their needs. This, of course, would have been bad for the carriers, requiring them to actually compete rather than continuing to bully their customers with abusive contracts and lies about their coverage and reliability. But what would Apple care? It’s not like they plan on entering the mobile service market (doing so would be an unbelievably bad move).
But, of course, Apple played the current game, found a service partner and kept the status quo. I can’t fault them, but I do think they missed an amazing opportunity to truly serve their customers. Still, I do believe the iPhone is only the beginning of the next phase of web development. By next Spring this will no doubt be a topic on everyone’s tongue. I’m not the best at prognostication (I’ll post my Yahoo story on here sometime) but I see the opportunity being presented to developers and entrepreneurs. I’m already working on something to take advantage of this, and I’d encourage others to do the same. There are already more than a few attempts at the mobile web, and the promise of the mobile web has been a long time coming, but I genuinely believe it will not only be fulfilled, but, within two years, completely ubiquitous. I look forward to the opportunities that will create.