One of the difficulties [for Palm developers] is that there's no one killer program Palm owners want to go into a store to buy. In fact, aside from the built-in programs for the Palm, no application is on more than 10 percent of handhelds.
-- CNet article, "Can developers pull dollars from Palms?", Feb. 8, 2002
The Nokia Communicator. The Handspring Treo. The Samsung i300. Combined with about a thousand other mobile phones offering "Wireless Web" access in various shapes and forms, it's clear that the Internet is finally going mobile. The bandwidth is a bit low yet, but that should be changing as it becomes more popular. But the problem is, it's not all that popular. People everywhere are using mobile phones for SMS -- the small-screen equivalent of e-mail -- but the Internet and all its content is getting ignored.
Not for lack of services, mind you. Yahoo! is entirely handheld-friendly, and people still aren't using it in droves, despite the availability of things like weather, stocks, sports scores, movie listings, the latest news and so forth. Part of this is because the screens are so darned tiny, but I don't think that would stop people if they wanted to read badly enough. No, the real problem is that Yahoo! doesn't offer any compelling content online that a mobile phone user couldn't get just as easily by picking up a local newspaper -- either today's or tomorrow's. Sure, I can get sports scores for cities halfway around the globe, but why would people want to? I have Yahoo! on AvantGo on my handheld, but the only thing I ever use it for is to look up movie listings occasionally -- and that's because I'm just too lazy to find the newspaper.
Despite all the hype about the wonders of the wireless Web, the available mobile devices are not able to provide a wireless Web adventure that would impress anybody. Transmission speeds lag behind the dial-up access rates the average AOL user gets at home. And the big question remains, who needs it?
-- NewsFactor.com article, "Where Is the Wireless Web?," Feb. 13, 2002
The Wireless Web should be the mobile device's "killer app," but it's not. All the truly compelling sites are slow and badly formatted, and all the fast and well-formatted sites lack compelling content. Most sites try to offer as much information and navigation as possible in one page, filling up the left or right columns (or both) of every page with the same stuff and leaving the main page available for specific content. Everything2 does this, too. E2 is generally easy to use with Lynx, but all those wonderful nodelets still sit at the bottom of the page while the Search stays stubbornly at the top, forcing users of non-graphical browsers to scroll and squint to identify either one.
In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words DON'T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.
-- "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
E2 is never going to be popular with mobile users in its current state. But it should be. After all, E2 offers all the things the portal sites don't, and all in one place. Movie and book reviews, by people who aren't paid to hype them. Biographical information on celebrities and historical figures. Popular culture. Definitions. Textbook knowledge. Famous poetry and prose, both original and not. Humor. Blogging. Eclectica.
H2G2 tries to be what Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide wanted to be, but fails for a number of very good reasons. Plus, E2 offers a community spirit and a very open system for adding and editing content. At the time of this writing, E2 has nearly half a million distinct writeups by some 40,000 distinct users. And none of it is available in any other, single location.
We are the killer app. The world just doesn't know it yet.
I am pleased and proud to announce E2's new better XML output. This increases our current set of XML ticker functionality, plus provides a better and cleaner set of XML (well formed, but not yet validating) displays for this site.
clientdev: new XML ticker output, by JayBonci
I would like to put forth a vision for all the developers who use and enjoy E2: Build a wireless client to the full database that is small, fast, and easy to use. And, of course, freely available to anyone who wants to use it. This would be the killer app for wireless handhelds throughout the English-speaking world.
Imagine, for a second, being able to look up honest movie, music or book reviews right in the store before you buy. Or accessing a travel guide to New York City while you're waiting for the subway. Or getting some fun information on your favorite sports team's opponent rather than just statistics from last season. Or hearing a strange piece of slang while visiting a distant city, or a technical term while reading a magazine article, and being able to look it right up. Or just wanting something random to read until your class starts or your meeting ends without having to download it first. Imagine how much the rest of the world would like to be able to do all that, too.
But E2 isn't good for wireless use yet, because it requires a Web browser and because it's too friggin' slow. I don't mean server loads. I mean the nodes that contain too many writeups with too much text for a slow mobile modem to handle, the search tools that are too far away for a small screen, the soft links and nodelets that provide quick navigation for a user of a graphical browser, but just slow things down needlessly for those who don't.
E2 has all the content it needs to be a wireless hit. It just needs an optimized interface.
Things To Do
These are the major issues I think a wireless, mobile version of E2 would need. Many of them are things that would or should never be done on the graphical, PC-based version of E2. Nevertheless, a different environment requires certain changes.
Forget the Wireless Web. A slimmed-down version of E2 for portable browsers is not the answer. Certain elements, like the Search bar, need to be on-screen at all times or at most a single click away. A user who has his User Preferences set up one way for the graphical E2 might want them a completely different way for the mobile E2. What we need is an entirely new client that accesses E2 using XML, and then displays it in a interface designed for small screens.
Trim the Extras. Nodelets must go. Softlinks must go. Useful features like adding a writeup or gabbing in the Chatterbox should be available by selecting a menu or clicking a fixed, non-scrolling button. Bookmarks of favorite writeups should be tucked away in their own menu. The text display of the client should display nothing but writeup headers and text, using the same HTML formatting that we support now.
Optimize the Writeup Display. E2's current node layout is great for the WWW, bad for the Wireless Web. Getting several writeups at once would be prohibitively time-consuming on low-bandwidth, mobile connections. Only one writeup should be displayed at a time, with single-button access to the last or next writeup. Writeup titles should be static while writeup headers and content should scroll. Voting up or down should be as easy as pressing or tapping two buttons (one would be prone to accidents). Writeup headers should be kept to the bare minimum -- author, type, date, and reputation.
Get It Everywhere. PalmOS. PocketPC. Whatever the Nokia Communicator uses. As long as they're looking for developers and "killer apps" to sell their new wireless devices, we should take them up on it. This client should work on every popular mobile wireless device that's on the market, and it should work as identically on every one of them as possible. Obviously, different screen sizes and resolutions (especially the elongated Communicator screen) will require some major changes to the interface layout, but there's no reason we can't keep the same on-screen tools and menus, just stored in different places.
UPDATE: There's a book on the way titled Flash Enabled: Flash Design and Development for Devices (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0735711771) that discusses designing Macromedia Flash for portable devices. I'm convinced that Flash, especially the newly-released Flash MX, will be the way to go. Many smart phones can use it, PocketPC can use it, and I believe it's coming to the PalmOS very soon. With built-in XML support, this will be the fastest way to produce a multi-platform client (if not exactly the most backwards-compatible).
Let It Make Money. Yes, by all means, give the client away, especially to device manufacturers. And keep E2 on the WWW free for everyone. But the mobile client is a special "extra," and if it becomes popular, it should offer the opportunity to make money for its developers and servers. If we're going to tax the server extra with this, we should get something back, right? So let the client be a 30-day trial, or think of how to sell $2-a-month subscriptions to access the content with it. Or else develop a whole new way to sell ad space on the thing -- let Barnes and Noble put a blurb beside every writeup containing the word "novel," for instance. I can call anyone cheaply from my home phone, but I pay a privilege to do it on the go; it's fair and reasonable for E2 to expect the same.
Involve Your Friends. Yeah, maybe you're whiz-bang enough to develop something like this on your own, but why when you can get help? Join the clientdev group here on E2, find out what you need, stick it up on SourceForge, and do your darnedest to let everyone who owns a mobile device know what it is and what it does. They don't have to know or like E2. They don't even have to see the word "Everything2" anywhere on it. They just have to use it and love it. And if they offer suggestions, write 'em down and try to add 'em in. Again, just because E2 on the WWW doesn't do something a certain way doesn't mean a wireless client can't.
Who We'll Need
- Anyone familiar with the development tools for existing mobile devices, especially PalmOS, and/or anyone willing to learn how they work.
- Anyone familiar with XML and how to build and parse it, and/or anyone willing to learn.
- Edev members to build a few new doctypes that the mobile client can access. Existing doctypes are designed for the graphical WWW; we need new ones just for mobile clients. (Example: a new type of node document that contains only one writeup and a link to previous/next ones.)
- E2 gods who can make the above things happen on the server side.
Interested? Join clientdev and tell us what you can do.