Interview: Dan Appelquist on Vodafone, Mobile Web, and W3C Standards

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Dan Appelquist

As part of a series of interviews with W3C Members to learn more about their support for standards and participation in W3C, I asked Dan Appelquist (Vodafone's Advisory Committee Representative at W3C) some questions.

Q. First, congratulations on the July publication of the "Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) 1.0" Recommendation. MWBP promotes a vision of "One Web," but I realize that there is a tension between improving the user experience by tailoring content to the strengths and weaknesses of individual devices, and making it easier for content providers to create and maintain content. What advice do you have for people for finding the right balance between authoring once and content adaptation? Do you foresee any changes in the market that are likely to tilt the balance one way or the other?

A. I think a few things need to evolve to help make this vision a reality. One is tooling - we need a better "tool chain" for the mobile web, especially mobile web applications, that takes into account device capabilities or at least device classes. I would look to the open source community to help drive this effort. Another is user and developer awareness. I very much hope we can (through W3C and MWI) drive user awareness of the mobile Web as a platform and start to create a mindset among developers and users that it's "OK" to have a different user experience between different devices / platforms - that this can be consistent with there being One Web.

Q. MWBP defines a "Default Delivery Context" that is "the minimum delivery context specification necessary for a reasonable experience of the Web." My understanding is that this will help ensure that content will be "mobile friendly" on a wide range of devices, including those with older browsers, or browsers with limited functionality. However, there are also "full Web" browsers available on mobile devices. How does MWBP apply for those browsers?

A. WBP encourages developers to "take advantage of device capabilities" while still keeping in mind the constraints of the devices and user agents that are more in line with the default delivery context. It's my hope that people won't perceive the DDC as a target to develop to but rather as a minimum or baseline, while enabling richer UI on richer browsers. However, I reject the idea of a "full Web." The Web is an evolving medium. "Full Web" to me is a code word for "web pages designed exclusively for PCs." Our mindset is that Web sits and Web applications should adapt to work across a range of devices.

Q. Widgets (on mobile and desktops) have received a lot of attention lately. Do you see them as a fundamental change to how people will access the Web on a mobile devices?

A. I see widgets as part of the larger problem-space of 'using the Web while off-line' - so they must become an extension to the Web. The work going on in the Web Applications Working Group around widget standards is the best hope for this to happen. I believe that work will be at least as important on mobile devices as it is on the desktop. I think this will change the way people perceive the Web across desktop and mobile, but I also believe this will fundamentally change the way people build mobile applications. Widgets that can access device capabilities such as location, camera, etc. become even more interesting, especially if these widgets can be interoperable across web run-time environments (user agents). In this way, Widgets on mobile can be a manifestation of the convergence between the Web and mobile worlds.

Q. Content transcoding proxies deployed by operators can improve the user experience of many Web sites. However, when content providers simultaneously make efforts to make their site work on a mobile device, conflicts can arise. How would you advise both operators and content providers to manage this situation?

A. The Mobile Web Best Practices group has worked long and hard on the content transformation guidelines document which tries to address these very issues. Like it or not, content transforming proxies are proliferating, installed and maintained by operators, major internet players and in the enterprise. The Content Transformation (CT) Guidelines describe how to make these proxies more transparent and how to make them "play nice" with each other and with content providers. The idea is to allow the proxies to do their work on pages that have not taken mobile users into account, while stepping out of the way when a content provider has developer a service that adapts for mobile anyway. We think the CT guidelines document strikes the right balance and I hope to see it adopted by the industry players.

Q. Do you think the cost of data transfer on mobile networks (in particular in Europe) is still a barrier for the full adoption of the Web by more consumers? Do you think these costs will decrease enough in the upcoming years or months to make a difference?

A. Unfortunately I can't comment too much on cost issues. I will say that the growth of flat-rate data plans is a positive trend in the industry right now and I hope that trend continues.

Q. In the past, the mobile applications market has witnessed fragmentation caused by proprietary approaches. Some have advocated the use of open Web standards as a means to overcome this fragmentation. Do you think that these technologies will provide a viable platform and improved interoperability? What makes the Web distinct from previous efforts?

A. Fragmentation is a fact of life, but the Web has shown itself to be a particularly robust platform with regard to dealing with and resisting fragmentation. Part of this has to do with a culture that embraces standards support, through community driven initiatives like the web standards project and the acid tests. Part of it has to do with the flexibility of the Web platform to iron out differences between fragmented implementations (e.g. through AJAX toolkits). So yes - I think the Web as a platform (including on mobile devices) will overcome this fragmentation issue, even though the fragmentation challenges on mobile are much greater than on the desktop.

Q. You have also been involved in the development of Web Integration Compound Document (WICD), which proposes a way to sew together content in different Web formats (e.g., XHTML and SVG). What are your expectations about the deployment of WICD? How do you see it relate to the recent discussions of integrating SVG in HTML5?

A. I'm not too familiar with the discussion on integration of SVG into HTML 5. However, with the WICD effort we not only defined the integration points between the two languages but also how the events pass between the different layers and many other tricky issues to do with user-agent behavior (e.g. 4-way navigation) focus and "rightsizing" of content. These are tricky issues and I sincerely hope the HTML Working Group considers our work in CDF before they re-invent the wheel. Having said that, I think that any effort to expand the reach of SVG as a format is positive. As for the WICD specification itself, we have seen a steady increase in implementation, so this spec is definitely gaining ground. I also believe it has implementation in the area of mobile widgets, especially on mainstream medium-spec devices.

Q. W3C has launched a Mobile Web for Social Development Interest Group to learn more about using mobile technology to bridge the digital divide. What role do you see mobile technology playing in this area?

A. A: The Mobile phone is already being used in the developing world as an important platform for Web access and as a tool for social development. Projects like MPESA mobile payments in Kenya are a good example. Unlike other effort to bring ICT to the developing world, the idea of The MW4D interest group primarily needs to focus attention on this topic and bring together the best thinking out there on how to encourage the growth of this medium. The biggest challenge is how to enable communities to use the Web as a tool for their own needs.

Many thanks to Dan for his answers.

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