WebKit owns mobile, and iPhone 3G S owns WebKit

Nokia, Android, Iris Browser for Windows Mobile, and Palm Pre all share the WebKit open source renderer, but iPhone 3G S shifts it into an insanely high gear

Apple shipped its iPhone 3.0 OS yesterday, a firmware drop that includes what looks to users like an updated Safari browser, but which wise developers recognize as the seeding of a prospective installed base for a new class of applications that are easy to create, run fast, and look great. Browsers that share Safari's open source WebKit engine ship standard in Android, Nokia, and Palm Pre devices, but for now only Apple and Nokia seem to recognize the potential of applications that leverage both WebKit as a framework and JavaScript as a first-class language (especially on the much faster iPhone 3G S).

The next stage of the App Store phenomenon awaits, and I'm thrilled. I think that this will bring Steve Jobs' original vision for the iPhone platform into closer focus. At the time he pitched Safari as iPhone's mobile application environment, to the exclusion of the native apps that now dominate App Store, it wasn't ready. Now it is. On iPhone 3G S in particular, users will be running browser-based apps with responsiveness and functionality that no rational person would associate with a browser. Maybe you think you know what to expect. You're reading this and thinking AJAX, Web 2.0, desktop experience in your hand, yada yada. No, this is way better. It'll blow you away.

[ iPhone OS 3.0 is better for business, but IT won't be satisfied. See InfoWorld's first look. | Your next iPhone: iPhone OS 3.0 update or iPhone 3G S? ]

Palm Pre drinks more deeply of Apple's open source browser generosity than any device birthed outside Cupertino, and the weaknesses of the Pre browser show that a WebKit implementor (a device vendor or browser writer) really, really needs to know the WebKit code, not just the concepts, before going to the extreme of constructing an app environment of it. A friendly rivalry between Opera and Apple to ace the Acid3 Web standards test in a desktop browser shifted WebKit development into an insanely high gear, where it seemed to remain stuck. This delights users of desktop Safari 4.0 for Mac and Windows, and iPhone 3.0, but I don't envy Palm trying to keep up with WebKit's accelerated evolution as a consumer of its code. As I note in my review of the device, Palm's implementation of WebKit is somewhat dated, and buggy besides.

Porting WebKit isn't easy. The open source builds only for full-blown, as in, not mobile Mac OS X and Windows. Palm had to make it work on Linux. Downsizing it and mating it to a device that might or might not have a keyboard or pointing device is bound to be a challenge.

I only recently learned about Nokia's advancement of WebKit as an app foundation. I have worked with Nokia's Web Runtime (WRT) before, but at the time I looked, WRT was more of a concept than a technology. With fresh WRT developer tool plug-ins for Aptana (Eclipse), Dreamweaver, and Visual Studio 2008, it looks like Nokia's putting some energy behind WebKit. I'll find out where WRT stands and report back to you, but first I must do two things: Get a device that will run WRT, and re-engage with Forum Nokia.

WebKit makes an appearance on the Windows Mobile scene in the form of the Iris Browser from embedded software vendor Torch Mobile. Iris 1.1.8 is a fresh release that self-identifies as Safari 3.1.1, a match for the iPhone 2.x browser, but it has some 4.0 features like animation. The new Iris Browser has only been out for a few days, and it's known to be unstable on my latest Windows Mobile devices. I'm trying it on some more mature hardware now. Looking at Torch Mobile's blog entry on the features in the new release, it appears that Torch is tracking WebKit surprisingly closely. If Iris proves stable, then Windows Mobile users may be able to run many Safari apps written for iPhone.

Apple quit working on bindings between WebKit and the Qt GUI framework fairly early on. Someone at Trolltech saw what they were losing (WebKit for Linux), said "No!" and are now fighting to refuze Qt to WebKit. The Qt WebKit effort may have breathed new life into S60 browser. All of this happened during a distraction. I need a late late-model device and proper Forum Nokia membership.

Amid all this WebKit chatter there are also major advances on the Flash Lite/Flash Player front. A (not open) source code drop for Flash 10 goes out to implementors (Google, Nokia, Palm, Microsoft, Apple, et al) at the end of 2009. To kick the party off, Adobe will hand out huge cash awards for winners of its Flash Lite Developer Challenge.

It turns out that Wednesday, iPhone OS 3.0 launch day, was also Flash Lite Challenge awards day. It's about time. I've been stuck in Adobe's doghouse unjustly for a column in which I spoke critically of Adobe's decision to, in my view, derail fast progress toward Flash Lite/Flash Player parity to cut exclusive license deals with wireless operators on closed UIs for individual handsets. Customers would prepay to buy Flash Player, embedded and stand-alone, for iPhone and T-Mobile G1 through App Store and Android Market.

WebKit, Flash, native, and, sometimes, Java: You'd want to attack serious mobile projects with that full toolbox.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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