Proposal for W3C/OpenAjax Alliance Workshop on Mobile Ajax
August 15, 2007
DHTML and Ajax in Mobile Search

My Interest and Background
I am the lead engineer on AOL's new mobile search product, which just launched yesterday at and is covered by several blogs, including GigaOm ..  Right now, we're using DHTML for those smartphone browsers which can handle it (e.g. Pocket IE on Windows Mobile), and we have some Ajax features in the pipeline.  This is all pretty unique for current mobile search engines.

At the Mobile Ajax workshop, I hope to shared the lessons learned and best practices during development of AOL Mobile Search.  At the same time, I would like to:

1) See what other search applications are doing with this technology.
2) Find tools and mobile Ajax frameworks to make my job easier.
3) Discuss standards and open API's for mobile search and widgets.

"My smartphone can do Ajax, but where are the apps?"
Until recently, smartphones were a high-end niche device for the business professional: expensive and mostly relegated to e-mail. Some devices can attempt to browse the "full" Web, but the screens are tiny, layouts squashed, and scripting support (much less Ajax) lacking or nonexistent.  As a result, smartphone users end up going back to the same static and boring XHTML-MP formatted sites that simple WAP phone users went to.  Mobile website designers could create a template for smartphones, but why bother if the segment was too small and fragmented and speeds too slow for rich media over mobile?

In the past year or two, that has all changed.  Most smartphones, notably Windows Mobile and Symbian S60, support JavaScript and Ajax over speedy 3G networks.  At the same time, these powerful devices are so stylish and cheap now that they've crossed over into the mainstream.  For example, the Samsung Blackjack, HTC Dash, and Motorola Q (all Windows Mobile) can usually be had "free with activation".  As a result, the demographic has expanded past business users and early adopters to the rest of the population.  However, with the exception of the iPhone, smartphone-optimized applications are still nonexistent.  Smartphone browsers are stuck in a no-man's land: able to browse the same XHTML-MP sites as WAP phones, but still lacking the scripting support to render most dynamic content formatted for the desktop.

One might argue that using a "full" Web browser like Opera Mobile or the iPhone over the more-limited Pocket Internet Explorer would be the solution, but it's only half the solution.  Firstly, Windows Mobile users would have to buy and install Opera Mobile themselves.  And then these users would soon find the zooming in and out and panning a small window over a multi-column page a less than ideal experience.  The screens are simply too small.  Most users would still prefer a mobile-specific version of the site over the desktop-formatted version.  In short, mobile web applications still need to be specifically designed to support smartphones. 

Mobile Search and the "Long River" Layout
Mobile search is one critical application, but it poses some interesting problems with navigation.  Since most WAP phones cannot perform horizontal scrolling and have small screens, mobile pages are formatted as such, with one single long column.  Pages are usually broken up into manageable chunks, but scrolling through these line by line can be quite tedious.  With mobile search, the problem is exacerbated because results from all categories are listed in one especially long page.  And sometimes, the ads themselves take up half the screen.  All mobile search engines seem to follow this long river layout.  Now Yahoo! OneSearch uses "skip" links to move to the next block of results, and has other links to refine the search and move back to the top of the page.  These work quite well, but are still clunky.  What are the alternatives?  For WAP phones restricted to XHTML-MP, there isn't much more that can be done besides going to an on-demand downloaded application in Java ME, BREW, or .NET CF, but those have their own issues with cross-platform development.  For smartphones with client-side scripting capabilties, the technology is there for an easier and more elegant solution.

DHTML Content Tabs
For AOL Mobile Search, we've attempted to solve the problem by having DHTML content tabs that dynamically update with no refresh,  Currently, this works in Pocket IE, NetFront, and Opera Mobile on Windows Mobile, as well as the iPhone.  We are testing with other platforms like Symbian S60.  At the same time, the "long river" layout is used as a fallback for WAP phones.

Screenshots of AOL Mobile Search

The tabbed navigation greatly enhances the search experience, as the navigation tabs are always visible on the screen.  As a results, users are encouraged to casually fast-switch among content categories.  So where do we go from here?

On-Demand Loading of Search Results
The mantra of mobile search is getting the user focused results as fast as possible and with the least effort.  e.g. when you search on weather, you get the weater.  For a stock ticker symbol like "GOOG", you get Google's last price and perhaps a nice daily chart.  Part of Google's success is its speed.  In the world of mobile, latency is magnified, and sometimes results don't come back quite as fast you'd like.  Wouldn't it be nice to have the slower results load on-demand in a hidden tab while you peruse the results that have come back quickly?  Even in Pocket IE, this is definitely doable with Ajax.

Rich Mobile Widgets
In the context of mobile search, a lot of our content sources are essentially widgets: i.e. local weather, stock chart, movie listings, maps, etc.  With Ajax, some level of interactivity could be brought to those widgets.  For example, the stock ticker or weather forecast might update in real-time.  Even better is if widgets were standardized so that they could be plugged into any mobile home page or search?

We are in a critical transition period for rich web applications on mobile devices.  Smartphones are now powerful enough to support client-side scripting and Ajax, while becoming cheap enough to attain widespread adoption.  To satisfy this increasing demand for rich web applications on smartphones and kick off the innovation, AOL just released a mobile search engine that uses DHTML tabs to make navigation faster and more intuitive.  In the mobile search arena, we will see more DHTML and Ajax used for on-demand loading of results and interactive widgets, among many other uses.

Alan Tai | E-mail: | AIM: alantwm | AOL Search Dev