Mozilla Corporationcarried out an online survey* among 590 developers in order to find out just how they are approaching the development of mobile applications. The survey tried to determine whether developers create applications which can be used on only one browser by choice, or whether it’s because they are using libraries that are only optimised for one platform and block out others.

Building Software “that Adapts to the Needs and Ability of the End User"

Interview with Christian Heilmann, Principal Developer Evangelist at Mozilla Corporation

L'Atelier: Your survey suggests that “the mobile web is broken.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

Christian Heilmann: Over the years, web technology has replaced unwieldy applications which were hard to update and difficult to use. Using a web email client from your mobile phone, your tablet and your desktop computer is much easier than creating an app for each of those platforms and asking users to install it everywhere. However, when it comes to mobile devices, web applications cannot access all the hardware. On an iPhone, for example, browsers other than Apple’s are not allowed. This leads to people building mobile web solutions that only work on one platform. Market fragmentation happens when you need to specialise. When you build an app, you need to build one on iOS, one for Android and one for every other platform you want to support. However, if you build an application using web technology, you can do it once and run it on all these platforms. The impact could be immense – imagine apps that update just by loading a small new part rather than needing full replacement.

L'Atelier: Is there a new trend spreading in the mobile market? What’s the future for this market?

Christian Heilmann: First of all, we’ve noticed that apps are tending to get simpler and more focused than in the past. We also see that the success of smartphones is making a lot of web developers rethink their approach to web applications. I can’t see the next innovations seeing the light of day by following the set rules of closed systems or by choosing to play safe and only concentrate on building 1€ applications that are fun to use for a few hours, but then discarded. We’ve replaced the system of having to install and uninstall software on the desktop with more flexible web content. We shouldn’t repeat on mobile devices the mistakes we made on PCs. The survey results tell us that a lot of developers use libraries to do the cross-platform work for them. The main challenge cited was a lack of time in the development cycle to build and test across various browsers. So apps are created to support various browsers, but might be ‘buggy’, given that most of the testing time is spent on iOS and Android.

L'Atelier:  How will this affect users?

Christian Heilmann: Choice is always good. On the web we have always had to deal with fragmentation. It was always difficult to know which browser, which platform and which hardware configuration Internet users were using. It’s now time to embrace the unknown and build software that adapts to the needs and ability of the end user. And this is what the web is very good at. People believe that closed technology is great just because it works. If that were the case, why is it so difficult to get an appointment in a store when the thing breaks down? Theoretically, shops’ help desks should be totally bored as nobody comes with a complaint, right?

*2012 Developer Survey: Mozilla describes the survey as “not scientifically clean research” as some basic questions regarding developers’ main work and frequency of tool use were not asked.