Phone makers, software vendors push Web-based apps

Using Web standards such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript opens the door for cross-platform applications, proponents say

Companies including Mozilla, Opera Software, Palm, and Sony Ericsson are trying to accelerate the use of Web standards when developing applications for smartphones.

Using HTML, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and JavaScript to develop applications that run in the browser holds the promise of applications that work on different platforms, making life easier for both developers and users. Developers can write an application once and users can switch to a new phone based on a different OS and still keep all of their applications, according to Norwegian browser company Opera.

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For this vision to become a reality, developers need easy-to-use tools, and in that space a lot of things are happening.

Sony Ericsson has made a tool called WebSDK Packager open source, it said in a blog post Tuesday. The WebSDK Packager is a good fit for developers with expertise in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript who are adept at creating Web applications but are not familiar with the complexities of the mobile environment, according to Sony Ericsson.

On Saturday, Hewlett-Packard demonstrated Enyo, an upcoming framework for webOS, which is used on Palm smartphones, at its webOS Developer Day in New York. Enyo is designed to make it easier to develop applications for smartphones and tablets at the same time, according to HP.

Today, good development tools are only the first step. The ability for developers to make money off their applications is also a very important driver. Recently, Mozilla announced a prototype of what it calls "an Open Web App ecosystem," a system that aims to ease discovery, installation and use of applications based on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, while also enabling developers to make money via multiple applications stores. There is no official launch date yet, but "we look forward to making this concept a reality," Mozilla said.

It isn't just established companies that are making the Web vision a reality on smartphones. Sony Ericsson's WebSDK Packager tool is based on the PhoneGap open source framework, which was created by Nitobi.

Earlier this month, Nitobi announced the beta of PhoneGap Build, a cloud-based tool that allows developers to write applications using HTML, CSS and JavaScript, upload their apps to PhoneGap Build, and get back applications that work natively on smartphones based on Android, webOS, Symbian and the BlackBerry OS, and soon on iOS, Windows Mobile, MeeGo, and Bada.

The tool will be free for open source projects; pricing details for commercial applications will be announced as the public launch nears.

However, Nitobi's hope is that what the company is doing today on PhoneGap will eventually be folded into the browser, according to Brian LeRoux, chief software architect at Nitobi, who took part in a panel discussion on cross-platform development at HP's developer day.

For the browser to take over, applications need to offer the same experience as native applications and browsers will have to be compatible with each other.

The point when that becomes a reality is close, according to Charles Jolley, creator of the SproutCore open source framework, who also took part in the panel discussion.

Ex-Apple employee Jolley has also founded Strobe, whose goal is to make SproutCore easier for developers to use.

Compatibility between different browsers is not the issue, thanks to the fact that they are all based on Webkit, and the differences that do exist are going away, according to Jolley. However, smartphones are still very memory and resource constrained and, historically, browsers have not been geared to working in that type of environment. But that is also changing, he said.

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