Opinion: The missing piece in the wireless Web

The whole wireless web space is endlessly fascinating. It is an exciting sector to be in right now for those with a strong constitution. If you are primarily technically-oriented, wireless is interesting because of the technology smorgasboard and the rapid pace of innovation and change. If you are financially-minded, wireless is also interesting because of the booms, busts and consolidations that continue to occur.

As a technologist and a XML "lifer", the wireless web drives me nuts. It's not that XML doesn't have place to play in the wireless world - it has a significant part to play. What drives me crazy is the extent to which XML is put forward as a solution to the challenges of the wireless web.

The flawed reasoning goes something like this:

The wireless web features a wide range of devices that are characterized by small screens and lack of horsepower.

Getting applications onto these screens involves separating the content of the applications from the presentation information used to display them (HTML, WML, cHTML, xHTML, SALT, VoiceXML, MMS/SMS, etc.)XML is all about separating the content from the presentation. Therefore, to build wireless applications, use XML!

This reasoning only addresses the tip of the iceberg of wireless web application development. Here is how I see it. An application on the web is a combination of three fundamental things: information, presentation and dialog. What is dialog? Dialog is the interaction with the user.

The only way to get wireless web applications to fly is to tailor the dialog that the application conducts with the user to the device being used. To do that, the dialog must be separated out from the core application so that it can be tuned on the fly, to the user's device. The concept is directly analogous to separating content from presentation.

So what has XML got to say about dialog?

Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Diddly squat. Zero.

This is not XML's fault, of course. XML was never designed to solve this problem. Given XML's heritage in SGML, it would have been quite something if XML solved the problem.

Truly usable wireless web applications require software that knows how to tune the dialog to the device in use. Users must be able to move between devices at will and the application should take the necessary steps to render a dialog suitable for the device every time.

Remember this: XML grew out of SGML. What is SGML's role in life? To separate content from presentation. For what purpose? To produce paper output. Static output. Output that does not change shape based on the color of the eyes used to read it. Output that does not have to care about dialog.

Truly usable wireless web applications require software that knows how to tune the dialog to the device in use. Users must be able to move between devices at will and the application should take the necessary steps to render a dialog suitable for the device every time.

I have my own opinions as to how best to do this and although the problem is a complex one, it is not intractable.

To my knowledge, no established framework for web application development allows the tailoring of dialog to the device.

Until such time as these frameworks comes into being, I fear that usable, mainstream wireless web applications will be as rare as hen's teeth.

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