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Webstock, geeking out and the death of Flash

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When Apple pulled out of the annual San Francisco Macworld conference last year, many Mac fans were despondent.

Macworld had been the annual pilgrimage for thousands of fans, developers and vendors and Steve Jobs' keynotes were anticipated with an almost religious fervour.

Once, Apple took part in conferences all over the world, in New York, London, Paris – even in New Zealand, where Renaissance used to run a great annual four-city 'Apple road show'.

Actually, an Apple-free Macworld show is still running, and it's next week.

Out in the rest of the world, conferences got less lavish, more focussed and, probably, more intellectually rewarding for attendees.

For Apple fans, all that's left is the lonely, if grandiose, World Wide Developers' Conference which Apple runs in San Francisco mid-year.

And there is talk of an Apple conference to run in central Auckland mid year...but more on that in the future.

A great example of the new style of tech conference – small, friendly, entertaining and mind-blowingly informative – takes place shortly in Wellington.

Webstock was founded a few years ago by Mike Brown and Natasha Lampard. It brings together the many arms of the internet, from traditional development through coding to open source, mobile and human interface issues. It covers speculative journeys into a future world of Web 3 and beyond. I will be attending the conference myself, and blogging from it next week. It's a truly excellent reason, if you ever needed one, to visit Wellington.

One of the speakers is Brian Fling, who has worked with hundreds of businesses from early stage start-ups to Fortune 50 companies to leverage a variety of mediums, like mobile devices, "to design for the needs and contexts of real people" (to quote his Webstock blurb).

He has in-depth knowledge of the design principles involved in creating mobile experiences for the new era of multiple devices.

From Seattle, Washington, which for many years served as the heart of the US wireless business, Brian has been working with a variety of mobile companies, doing both web and mobile design, for over ten years now.

I got to ask him some questions a couple of weeks before Webstock, excerpted here concerning the iPhone, apps and iPad. (The full interview is posted on my mac-nz.com site here.

Stan Ng of Apple Inc told me last year that even Apple was blown away by the scale and breadth of iPhone apps, covering all sorts of areas that hadn't even been conceived of when Apple developed the OS and released the SDK. Did you see this coming?

I thought it might, but I really hoped it wouldn't.

Mobile applications have been around for as long as I've been in the business. The difference was that it would take ages, in some cases up to a year, to build and test an app for say just the J2ME (now Java ME) platform. Then it would take several months to get it on to the carrier portals (called 'decks') in order to sell. Once there you had to negotiate with the carriers to get good deck placement. It was a long drawn out and sales-based process with little return.

What Apple did was to remove that entire ecosystem from the carrier and manage it themselves. They offered developers a simple SDK that worked with all current and future iPhones, something that no one had really done before. In short, they took an entire established business model and made it 10 orders of magnitude easier than what anyone else had done.

Why I hoped it wouldn't is that supporting native apps is still a slippery and costly slope. Supporting one device, like the iPhone is a snap, but supporting two is double the cost. Three, triple the cost. And so on. Even now, adding iPad support, which is built on the same platform as the iPhone, increases costs of an iPhone project. Every mobile device is a bit different and therefore adds complexity to the design and development of it.

It seems to me that the major difference between a mobile device and a laptop is not just power, but also the ability to input data. IE, it's much easier on a laptop's keyboard to type notes, write a story ... Do you think this distinction will be maintained or do you think that as mobile devices become more capable, input (for example, voice to text) will become easy and the distinction will be lost? Or is this not a consideration?

To me the biggest distinction between a mobile device and a laptop is the network. Most mobile devices are designed to always be connected, which adds a slightly different mental model to how and when we interact with information. The input is also a concern, but I think really only for "old" people, in which I mean anyone over the age of 30.

These days I'm thinking there are two different types of mobile users: those of us who remember the days before the 3 As: Atari, Amiga & Apple – and those who don't. The 3A people are very particular about their mode of input, they think of a task, then need to translate that in their heads into how and when to input or interact with it. They perceive these devices as tools.

The non-3A people think in services. Destinations like sites or apps, or their social connections, are the tools to perform tasks; the method of access is completely replaceable. Twitter is a perfect example of a non-3A service: I can interact with it in a number of contexts, devices and inputs to the extent that is makes the mode of access irrelevant. ... I think the distinction between "mobile" and "desktop" is going away entirely. In fact I think it will be completely gone within the next five years. I think there will be devices "on the network" and devices "off the network."

To put it another way, while I was pretty sceptical at first about the rumours surrounding the iPad, I have to admit that I think it has the chance of being bigger than the iPhone. For 80 per cent of the people I know, this is the only computer they will need. It has the web, email, an office suite, a couple 100,000 apps, long battery life, it can always be on the network – and all of this for about half the price of a modest laptop.

Where I saw the iPhone as the future of mobile, I think the iPad might just be the future of computers.

Apple refuses to support Flash on the iPhone and is pushing HTML5 as a web and device standard. What do you think the future of video is on iPhone and other mobile devices?

I think Flash is dead. I don't think the iPhone is the cause, I think it has just brought the conversation forward ...

What do you imagine will be the case for mobile devices in five years time? Ten?

Well that is a big question, so I'll reply with a big answer: The next five to ten years has the potential to define the next century and mobile is at the heart of it. We are in the very beginning of the next industrial revolution, where a variety of elements will create the dramatic confluence of everything. Technology, globalisation, economics, politics, cultural and behavioural patterns are all looking to each other for solutions. This creates a unique nexus that only happens once every 100 years.

But this revolution is hard to imagine and even harder to try and act on in the corporate environment. Mobile of today forces companies of all sizes to begin having the conversations that will begin to define their company for the next century. It helps them see beyond the capitalist mentality of the last century and see a ubiquitous, people-centred economy of the next century. Growth will transition from being driven by sales and marketing, to being context and value-driven, something that mobile exposes very quickly.

So to answer your question, I'd say the case for mobile today is to help define the business of the next five to ten years.

And finally, (I have to ask this), are you a Mac user or a PC user?

As if you had to ask. I'm the worst kind of Mac user: a reformed PC user. I switched in 1998 and have never looked back.

- Mark Webster mac-nz.com

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