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Professional Mobile Web Development with WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal
By James Pearce
John Wiley & SonsCopyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroducing the Mobile Web
WHAT'S IN THIS CHAPTER? * Your first introduction into the magical world of the mobile web
* Learning about the background and heritage of today's mobile web
* Thinking about how you should treat this new medium differently to the way you treat desktop web users
* Some of the philosophical themes that will underpin much of your work throughout this book
Welcome to your journey into the mobile web. The goal of this book is to equip you with the tools, designs, and ideas that you need to bring websites that have been build with Content Management Systems into the hands of mobile users.
To get started, it is worth understanding exactly what is meant when we talk about "the mobile web." The huge increase in mobile phone usage worldwide over the last decade means that most of the human species is already familiar with the concept of communicating without wires. And if you are reading this book, you are probably already extremely familiar with the principle of the Internet and Web! But combining these words together — mobile web — suddenly describes a whole new concept: the idea that you can access the vast resources of the Web, whenever you want, and from wherever you are, via a small consumer electronics device that you can keep in a pocket.
Think about it for a moment. This is an invention that was likely beyond the wildest dreams of your forebears. The Web represents a significant portion of the sum of all human knowledge, and you are on the cusp of having this vast resource available to you — on-demand, and in your hands — from a device no larger than a small notepad.
The concept of this ubiquitous mobile web is an exciting new horizon. But you're not there yet! I hope this book helps and inspires you, as a site owner, manager, or developer, to understand what you can do to make your own sites and services as well prepared for this future as possible. Let's start that journey, in this chapter, by introducing the concepts and principles of the mobile web as a whole.
THE INEVITABILITY OF A MOBILE WEB
Your grandparents would probably recognize it as an archetypal scene from a science fiction book: Your protagonist, somewhere in the universe, pulls out a small handheld device, taps on it, and speaks. On the other side of the planet or spaceship upon which the action takes place, others receive the call, listen to the message, and begin to converse. It was not very long ago that wireless communication was the ultimate in futuristic high technology. As recently as 30 years ago, most people's usage of telephones was relatively rare, costly, and short-distance. More importantly, it was utterly constrained by copper; you couldn't make a call unless you were within a few meters of the handset. Only 15 years before that, most national and all international calls required an operator to patch calls through huge switchboard, cables and all.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, this started to change dramatically. Developments in radio and cellular technologies, coupled with the miniaturization and cheapening of computing hardware, enabled new possibilities: networks in which people could carry their telephone devices with them (or barely carry them, in the case of some of the early suitcase-sized models!), and, assuming they had sufficient radio coverage, place and receive calls while on the move.
Initially relying on analog technologies, and then through the creation and standardization of subsequent generations of digital technologies, these devices rapidly grew in number and fell in cost. At the same time, the cellular networks required to connect them grew in size, coverage, and interconnectedness. The cell phone became commonplace, even ubiquitous, and before you knew it, the constraints placed on where and when you could talk to friends and colleagues over the phone had been lifted.
Equipped with their miniature keyboards and screens, it was not long before other ways in which these small devices could be used started to emerge. The digital technologies used to transmit and receive voice were also perfectly capable of doing so for small amounts of data. Almost unintentionally, the GSM standard, for example, allowed users to send and receive short messages of 140 characters in length with their devices. By 2000, billions of such messages were being sent worldwide. Clearly the mobile device had the potential to be more than just a way to talk to others: It could be used as a device capable of sending and receiving data from other handsets, or indeed, central services.
The 1990s also saw the birth of the Web — a way in which computers could connect to the vast, interconnected Internet and access pages of information residing on servers elsewhere, worldwide. Again, this had been an evolution from more primitive and simple technologies, but the Web burgeoned, thanks to factors such as the ease with which users could use browsers to navigate through content, the array of tools that made it easy for authors to create and publish content, and again, the decreasing cost and increasing power of computing hardware.
Buoyed by a dream of having the world's knowledge and information formulated in an open way that humans could access it in dynamic and compelling ways, not to mention the prospects of being able to promote businesses and run commerce across the medium, the Web went from strength to strength, until by the end of the 1990s, it too was a powerful and familiar concept — at least in the developed world. With the benefit of hindsight, and noticing that two complementary concepts — the mobile phone and the Web — developed so significantly during the 1990s, it seems inevitable that at some point the telecoms and web industries would consider what it might mean to combine the two platforms.
For mobile networks and phone manufacturers, it meant the attraction of untethering people from their computers in the same way that they had been from their home telephones. For web and software companies, reaching beyond the PC meant the opportunity to add hundreds of millions of new users to the Web. And for users, the idea of being able to access the vast array of information, content, and services — through their personal mobile device — would be the exciting realization of yet another chapter from science fiction. The idea, at least, of the mobile web was born.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MOBILE WEB
In practice, of course, there was no single epiphany, flash of smoke, and creation of a beautifully crafted mobile web. Although it has always seemed inevitable, it has taken more than 10 years to reach a point at which you can consider the mobile web to be a rich and compelling reality. But a short history lesson to understand how we all got here is a useful exercise.
One of the first companies to pioneer the concept of pull-based information services on a mobile device was Unwired Planet, based in California. Launched in 1996, the company produced a system called UP.Link, comprised of a software browser (UP.Browser) that ran on PDAs and mobile handsets, and a network-side gateway that would aid the browser in fetching and formatting sites written in the company's proprietary markup language, HDML.
HDML was a card-based system for structuring content, and it bore little resemblance to HTML, even in its simplest form. The basic principle was that the browser would retrieve a "deck" of such cards, allowing a user to look at a selection of related pages of information without the browser having to make additional requests to the server. The cards supported textual and basic image content, and allowed users to navigate through decks with simple links and soft-key anchors; it even initiated telephone calls.
In the U.S., AT&T ran a packet-switched data network called PocketNet, which was, at the time, one of the first consumer offerings to provide Web-like access on a mobile device. This service encouraged many early website owners to experiment with developing HDML-based sites for this niche U.S. market.
In 1997, Unwired Planet attempted, and failed, to get HDML adopted as a markup standard by the W3C, which would have been an important step in getting the technology widely used and used outside of the United States. However, in that year, Unwired Planet joined with Nokia and Ericsson (which had been developing Web-like markup languages of their own) to form the WAP Forum, a standards body that would go on to specify WAP and related standards. Much of the early structure of the resulting WML markup language came from the HDML syntax and concepts, and Unwired Planet adapted their infrastructure and browsers to support WAP, becoming a major worldwide vendor of browser and gateway products as a result.
i-mode in Japan
In February 1999, the Japanese network carrier NTT DoCoMo launched a service called "i-mode" as a feature that allowed mobile subscribers access to simple Web content on their mobile handsets. Rather than requiring a new markup language like HDML or WML, i-mode browsers were capable of rendering pages written in C-HTML, which was simply a subset of the HTML v3.2 language common at the time. Although publishers were encouraged to build special C-HTML sites specifically for i-mode usage, they used their existing HTML knowledge and tools, which meant there was a much smaller barrier to getting sites online. That factor resulted in a huge number of publishers doing so.
Many things contributed to i-mode (and similar rival offerings from other carriers) becoming hugely popular in Japan. One was the reliability and consistency of the browsers and the networks; another was the way in which DoCoMo provided billing mechanisms that allowed site owners to take payments from users for various commercial services. Some also suggest that the relative lack of PC-based Web access in Japan at the time also drove i-mode to success; for many consumers, their mobile device was the easiest and quickest way to access Web content at all, so i-mode adoption grew phenomenally (rising to 40 million users in a mere four years following its launch).
Whatever the reasons, i-mode and other Japanese mobile web platforms were held in high esteem by the mobile industry elsewhere in the world. Very quickly, their ubiquitous use throughout Japan became a blueprint for what a successful mobile web might look like, and several European and Asian carriers endeavored to replicate its success by using exactly the same technologies in their own networks several years later. (Notably, most of these were unsuccessful, suggesting that the i-mode technology itself was not the main factor of the Japanese network's success.)
Wireless Access Protocol
The WAP Forum, formed in 1997, was a standards body dedicated to helping bring web-like access to simple handsets across low-bandwidth mobile networks (such as GSM and GPRS). The WAP standards that were produced, first as a reference v1.0 in 1998, and then as a deployable v1.1 in 1999, defined a whole stack of protocols to help deliver content efficiently across these networks.
Central to the WAP architecture was the role of the WAP gateway, which, like the UP.Link gateway, was responsible for taking content available on web servers hosted on the Internet and essentially compiling it into an efficient bytecode format that the browsers on the handset could efficiently handle and render. Because of this compilation process, content could not be written in arbitrary HTML; it had to be created in strict, well-formed WML — Wireless Markup Language, as shown here:
<?xml version="1.0"?> <!DOCTYPE wml PUBLIC "-//WAPFORUM//DTD WML 1.1//EN" "http://www.wapforum.org/DTD/wml_1.1.xml" > <wml> <card id="one" title="First Card">
Welcome to my first WAP deck.
<a href="#two">Next page</a></card>
This is the next card of the WAP deck.
WML was an XML-based language and was similar to HDML in that it relied on a card-based paradigm (as shown previously) and shared very few tags with HTML. Web developers who wanted to create sites for WAP handsets needed to craft entirely different markup and interfaces, even when the underlying content was shared with the regular web version of the site. (And unfortunately, the intolerance of many WAP gateways meant that web developers had to emit absolutely perfect XML syntax or risk cryptic errors on their users' screens.)
The earliest WAP devices included the iconic Nokia 7110 and the Ericsson R320, both released in 1999 and providing monochromatic access to simple WAP content. Both adhered well to the specifications, supporting simple images in cards, for example, and many pioneering developers created sites for the devices. Nevertheless, the early hyperbole surrounding the potential of WAP failed to meet user's expectations: They were unable to "surf the Internet" on their mobile devices as they expected, finding that only those few sites that had crafted WML-based versions rendered on their screens.
Further, the increasing numbers of devices that shipped with WAP browsers over the following years brought a huge problem of diversity for site owners. Each browser could interpret certain sections of the WAP specifications differently, and the inconsistencies between implementations were frustrating for a web community that at the time was used to the ease of developing for a single web browser on the desktop environment.
For these, and many other reasons, WAP failed to gain the momentum that had been expected, and it did not become the worldwide mobile web platform that many had hoped for. Network carriers, worried both about the unreliability of mobile sites on the Internet as a whole and keen to monetize data usage across their networks, often blocked mobile users from accessing arbitrary web addresses from their phones, preferring "walled gardens" of content from preferred partners, which often ended up as little more than directories of ringtones, desktop backgrounds, games, and other downloads.
WML underwent a number of revisions before the WAP Forum (which became part of a larger standards body, the Open Mobile Alliance) specified that WAP v2.0 should use a mobile subset of XHTML as its markup language. With that came the end of web developers' need to develop pages in an entirely unfamiliar markup and the start of a standards convergence between the modern desktop web (which was gradually, although not universally, adopting XHTML) and the mobile web of the future.
Dawn of the Modern Mobile Web
The years 2006 and 2007 were seminal in the development of the mobile web. For several years, high-end mobile devices in Europe, Asia, and the United States had been gaining relatively high-resolution color screens and increasingly powerful processors. Together with a widespread rollout of third Generation (3G) network connectivity, sometimes with flat rates of data usage, this now meant that many of the constraints of older devices and networks were now removed, and there was a decreasing need to rely on "lite" pastiches of the Web, such as WAP and i-mode, to deliver information to handsets. Finally, there was a possibility that much of the regular web could be browsed, cost effectively, on high-end mobile devices.
A presage of this change was Nokia's often overlooked decision to develop a port of the WebKit web browser to its Symbian operating system in 2005. (WebKit, the underlying engine of Apple's recently released Safari browser, had been open-sourced by the company that year.)
Nokia's first handsets to carry the resulting S60 Browser were extremely successful, if not entirely because of the browser alone. The fact that most browsers supported WiFi (for fast, free network connectivity) and that even the richest web content could be browsed quite capably (with the help of a full-screen zoom-in/out feature) meant that many developers saw a future in which the mobile device would become a viable first-class citizen of the Web, rather than one crippled by slow bandwidth and prohibitive Internet access.
Any lingering doubts that full mobile web access was just an esoteric dream were shattered in 2007, when Apple — a new entrant to the mobile handset business — launched its iPhone device. Promoted as a combination of phone, music player, and Internet communicator, a large part of the iPhone's attractiveness to consumers was its ability to render desktop websites with high fidelity, and pan and zoom through them elegantly using a multi-touch screen. The handset came bundled with unlimited data plans from most of its launch carriers.
Excerpted from Professional Mobile Web Development with WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal by James Pearce Copyright © 2011 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Excerpted by permission of John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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