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Widgets Could Be Next Big Thing For Mobile Apps
by Evan Koblentz - Feb. 12, 2010
 
Mobile software developers may soon find widgets as the answer to their ongoing debate about native apps versus web apps.
 
Widgets are already popular as small applications based on CSS, HTML, and JavaScript, running directly atop computer desktops. They're easier and quicker to write than full applications, and they often interact across networks. Now, the same concepts are beginning to develop for mobile devices, as device-agnostic applications that do what Sun Microsystems' Java never quite accomplished -- write-once, read-anywhere.
 
"It doesn't surprise me. Mobile widgets are a hot topic," says Philippe Le Hegaret, interaction domain leader at the World Wide Web Consortium. His domain includes the widget working group, along with a device API working group, which are making new open standards. "Historically we've always been interested in the idea of having one web... and then using several technologies to adapt," he explains.
 
Few major changes are expected in 2010; group members are focused on testing it and checking for bugs. W3C standards are known for high quality but typically slow rollouts, several observers noted.
 
Some companies prefer not to wait. A group of wireless carriers including AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, and Telefonica formed the Open Mobile Terminal Platform in 2004 to work on data services and security and in 2008 announced their own mobile widgets standard called Bondi (pronounced "bahn die").
 
Bondi started before the W3C's work and has a wider scope of APIs and definitions. Version 1.1 debuted this week, and next week the OMTP will announce a draft of version 1.5 at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, groups CTO Nick Allott says. The new draft is expected to be final by this fall and explains how mobile widgets can use Bluetooth connections, cryptology software, device sensors, and SIM cards. Version 2.0 may arrive in beta form before the end of the year, Allott adds. OMTP also says its standards will be backward-compatible with the W3C standards to minimize fragmentation.
 
So far there a few dozen sample widgets giving access to location services and search functions. Allot says his group is just beginning to see prototypes of enterprise widgets such as workflows through a company called Cordys and emergency services from TETRAtab. LG and Sony-Ericsson also support Bondi.
 
A third group is the Joint Innovation Lab, which consists of China Mobile, Softbank, Verizon Wireless, and Vodafone on the operator side, and LG, Research In Motion, Samsung, and Sharp on the device side -- some of which also participate in the W3C and Bondi, and say they're just exploring all avenues to make mobile widgets. JIL aims to use W3C standards, but its own work is proprietary. The group has a 1.1 specification and last month released its 1.2 beta specification. However, there are indications that Bondi is ahead of JIL's work. Vodafone technical strategist Daniel Appelquist, in an April 2009 presentation available on the W3C's web site, cited Bondi's secure approach as "the next chapter" of mobile widgets.
 
Vodafone's developer pavilion at Mobile World Congress next week will be very JIL-centric -- "We show how to include user research in your development process, introduce you to available user experience resources especially created for widget developers and explain how to use them effectively," Vodafone's mobile widgets developer blog states about the upcoming sessions. AccuWeather will demonstrate its sample widget there, the company adds.
 
Other proprietary efforts include AT&T's September 2009 acquisition of Plusmo, which was one of several startup companies in the field; Nokia's existing web runtine widgets, which interact with its APIBridge component released late last year; and Bitstream's Bolt mobile browser which will add a limited widgets gallery also next week.
 
Industry analyst Chris Hazelton, of The 451 Group, says the W3C, OMTP, JIL, and their supporters need to act quickly before proprietary approaches gain traction. Also, widgets groups regardless of their origin need to do better at explaining the technology's differences versus native and web applications.
 
"It's really hard to say just because it's architected a certain way that it's going to do better than those others, because to the end user it looks the same," Hazelton says. Continuous updates are helpful, but it's too soon to say which methods may catch on.
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