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The Walled Garden Paradigm

Cell phones have changed the world. From the wealthy to the poor, from the developed world to the developing world, the growing ubiquity of mobile phones has opened doors that, previously, had not even been present to be opened. Put simply, cell phones accomplish everything by connecting people all over the world—the very same purpose of the internet.

The separation between an iPhone and a MacBook, after all, is hardware, not the purpose for which it is used. The accessibility of the web, theoretically, can be easily translated onto a small, mobile device, in the format of the open language suite of the internet. Free languages and, thus, unlimited possibilities for all, based on nothing but the limits of a developer’s creativity, whether they live in San Francisco or Kigali!

These ideals exist in all but implementation. HTML5 was built for this purpose of universality. The rise of canvas and a somewhat stable syntax provides a baseline of compatibility which internet phones should support. The web should translate, no matter what size your screen is. However, the biggest crack in this paradigm is a whopper—more of a giant tree across the road than a bump. Native apps—that is, applications that are programmed to be installed on the operating system, rather than pulled from the internet—are exponentially faster than HTML5 apps. In a world where seconds staring at a screen waiting for something to load can feel like minutes1, molehills of time become mountains of users clamoring for “the iPad version” of the app rather than the “internet version”.

Furthermore, the transition of internet from desktop to handheld has been wrought with the same style of bickering inveterate to cell phone plans. Turf wars have led to what Apple and Google call “mobile ecosystems”, and what the more cynical techies call “walled gardens”. If you have ever been so audacious as to use both Apple and Google products with the intention of integrating the two, you’ve no doubt been driven bonkers by the small, seemingly overlooked incompatibilities. Without remarking on the intention of these annoyances, a user increasingly finds his or herself backed into a corner2, shoehorned into favoring one over the other—therefore becoming a “Mac user” or a “Google user”3.

Predictably, this type of competition—the creation of very small monopolies—is bad for innovation, bad for the consumer, and gelds the potential for change web-access cell phones offer. iOS, Apple’s mobile platform, is closed-source. Next to no customization is possible or encouraged, except what is included out of the box or downloaded in app form4. Google’s platform, Android, is based on the open-source, free operating system Linux. However, Google controls the purse-strings of compatibility rather tightly, and, in a similar fashion to Apple, only allows applications to be downloaded5 through their proprietary “Play Store”, presumably post-approval by the Google conglomerate. Updates to the Android platform are only released officially, and rarely at that. The multiplicity of phones that run Android tend to have their own, non-standardized “skin” (interface between the phone and the operating system), and individually must be upgraded to work with the updated Android version. In the worst case scenarios, carriers delay the distribution of the updates or refuse to skin the updates for old phones. The result is nothing more than the recurrent frustration everyone tends to experience when dealing with mobile phones, leading many families to concede that cellular companies must be out to destroy all happiness in the world.

For developers, the battle is two-fold. The aforementioned problems are major headaches, but a looming issue most users fail to process is the simple difference in language within which apps are coded. Android applications are coded in Java; iOS applications are coded in Objective C; Windows 8 runs C#, C++ and a bit of Javascript/HTML. Though all programming languages are related, it’s akin to Italian’s relation to Spanish. Order a sandwich in Spanish in Italy and you’ll probably get a slab of ham to the face. They’re not interchangeable—so to talk to people in Italy, you must learn Italian, no matter how much Spanish you know. Programming apps is the same way—you have to be a computational polyglot to reach all of your users, a skill which takes time and resources to cultivate.

Onto this scene bursts8 Sailfish, a developer centered mobile operating system. The major improvement over Android is the open-source, git-like9 nature of the platform. Jolla, the company behind Sailfish, fully expects the OS to be continually improved by the web community—however, if you’ve seen a glaring problem, you’re both paying attention and have a sharp business mind. There’s no incentive for the web community to do so. Sailfish apps are programmed in Qt, a language written in C++ with the chameleonic ability to parse other types of code using “language bindings”—aka language plug-ins. In a sense, it’s a piecemeal mosaic—an artist who started with only glass-blowing skills then painted over the surface of a beer bottle to make it seem like stone. Summarily: roundabout, unwieldy, and unlikely to make a splash where Android and iOS exist in force.

The Mozilla Foundation is primed to answer the clarion call for cellular egalitarianism. This comes as no surprise, as Firefox, Thunderbird and its various products are open-sourced, developer-centered and most of all, free. Mozilla fights for the open web by making programs that are easy to customize and promote innovation. Predictably, the Mozilla conglomerate is largely non-profit—with the notable exception of the subsidiary Mozilla Corporation, which reinvests in the Foundation’s operations. All in all, not Google, and not Apple.

Mozilla’s answer to the open mobile conundrum is to simplify. Firefox OS’s platform is the internet. The cell phone hardware runs a very simple Linux start-up that can connect to Android and iOS—thereby busting through the walls of those idyllic gardens—but primarily connects to its own system, which is written entirely in HTML, CSS and JavaScript. With the platform written in web languages, naturally, the applications are as well. Thus, native apps become mythology. Downloading an application for your phone has no bonus, because all applications run in the exact same language, which saves time, energy, and are available to develop for anyone who knows how to make a website.

The discrepancy of speed is not solved by an operating system that runs on web languages. However, the beauty of such a project is that developers all over the world are already invested in it. Any improvement to the languages of the web becomes an improvement to the Firefox OS. As the web moves forward, so does the mobile platform. The void between the mobile web and the internet disappears. Don’t call it a pipe dream—call it a goal worth working towards. Imagine: a higher concentration of nerd brain power could lead to technological leaps of unprecedented proportions. Developers could come from any place in the world that teaches what a <head> tag is. International development could take on a micro-scale as never seen before—a Kiva-like platform tailored to each individual circumstance10, built by locals presented with a need, reaching anyone in the world with a screen. The open mobile web could be the great equalizing factor we’re looking for—if we can get there. The beauty of the web is its accessibility and equal opportunity to access everything it has to offer; shouldn’t a portable version of that masterpiece share the same characteristics?

 

Currently Listening to: The Feeling – The Knocks.

 

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1Or years, if you fancy yourself dramatic.

2Ostensibly of the walled garden. Come on now, keep up.

3Any internet denizen steeped in commercial history will find the comparison as familiar as lingonberry to IKEA shoppers.

4COSTING YOU, TODAY ONLY, $1.99!

5Unless, of course, you force your phone to download applications from the web itself, in which case any casual, non-techie phone user is scared away by the monster-in-the-closet warnings of Trojans, viruses, and spyware6.

6Not without reason, of course, but it does seem to smack of the “never-talk-to-a-stranger” mantra which kids tend to spend most of their adult lives trying to get around, specifically when needing to make friends or traveling in a country where, hypothetically of course, they can’t read any of the signs because they’re written in Arabic.

7I dare you to suggest a fun app that only runs on iOS to a room full of both iPhone users and Android users. No doubt someone will shriek, “I don’t understand why they just don’t put it on both phones! It can’t be that hard!” Understandably so, because no one has bothered to hash out the specifics in a way that doesn’t require Wikipedia spelunking.

8Is bursting? Currently bursts? Bursting in the present, ongoing tense.

9Git is a paradigm that directly progenated an indispensible developer-hacker website, GitHub. Git is a way to track all versions (and, consequently, improvements or modifications) to a piece of code. GitHub is an enormous open-source repository of gits—encouraging crowd sourced improvements to all projects hosted therein. The power of the open-web community at its finest.

10In fact, the solar industry has already spun-off its own mutation of Kiva and Kickstarter. Innovation like this, though already possible, would be more accessible for the world. And that, my friends, is a game-changer.

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About Kyle

"I'm so enriched by my friends' political Facebook statuses and tweets!" said no one ever. So then we made a blog to continue said opinions over more that 140 characters. Op-eds, partisan-ship, unbiased reporting, pop culture, and book recommendations. Look at the headers, n00b.

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