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The Next Application Platform January 26, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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A friend of mine got an untethered iPhone for Christmas.  Another friend bought his entire family a set of HTC touch screen smartphones this past Friday (I feel distinctly old-fashioned with my BlackBerry).  We were all at the theater yesterday.  At the first intermission, seated in the box seats, we looked out upon an audience full of people with small bright screens poised in front of their faces.  Dozens of people in the audience were using their phones, not to make calls, but to check email, or play games.

I suppose we all know this one by now, but the phone is the next wave of innovation in computing.  That wave may, in fact, expand upon the computer, depending upon the impact of devices such as Apple’s upcoming tablet.  I was at a Barnes and Noble bookstore yesterday, and front and center was a kiosk singing the praises of the Nook.  (The kiosk was unstaffed on a slow Sunday morning, and apparently alarmed, as a curious patron discovered.)

Software developers take note.  You may complain about the multiple and incompatible platforms (iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm, Android, Windows Mobile, etc.), but this is little different than the early days of the desktop computer, when even writing to the MS-DOS API wasn’t a guarantee across its many versions.  Much like today’s Apple, RIM, Palm, Google, and Nokia, two and three decades ago it was Microsoft, IBM (both DOS and OS/2), Apple (MacOS and Apple OS), Amiga, SCO (Xenix), and if you want to go back a bit further, CP/M (and I’m sure I’m leaving some out).

One or perhaps two will likely win out, just as Windows and to a lesser extent the successor to the MacOS won out on the desktop.  While Apple is certainly out in front right now, the software platform race has a long way to go (but at this point it doesn’t look like Microsoft will be one of the winners).

You may also complain about the lack of memory, or less-productive development tools, or the small amount of display real estate on the platform.  But the platform is what it is, which in some sense makes software development interesting again.  You won’t be able to assume unlimited memory and storage and be sloppy about writing code.  And performance will matter.

And the type of application matters, too.  A native client is probably the most difficult, though you’ll get the best performance.  I would like to see Ajax-enabled Web pages become a UI standard, although you would need an unlimited data package and better Web page design and performance to make this feasible.  But fast Web front-ends have the ability to run across different phone platforms.

Developers need to get the nuances of building applications for phones and similar devices, because this is the next platform battle.  I don’t mean everyone but enterprise developers; this counts for everyone who still plans on writing code three or four years from now.  There’s no getting around it.  If you want to continue being a software developer, you need to pick a phone platform you are willing to learn, and get to work with it.

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