Tuesday, October 19, 2010

WAC On Track to Deliver

The Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) is the heir to BONDI and the Joint Innovation Lab (JIL), which in turn were mobile application platforms based on extended versions of W3C's Web Widgets standard. The idea is enabling the use of web technologies (HTML, CSS and Javascript) to write full-blown mobile apps, as well as small homescreen-hanging "widgets". This is achieved by providing a web client runtime environment with an extended Javascript API, allowing access to underlying handset functions such as soft keys, camera, messaging system etc – though in my experience you can go a long way without ever crossing the limits of standard web programming.

Ever since its inception early this year there has been quite reasonable doubts on WAC's ability to deliver. Following Android's avalanching success and a surge of me-too mobile platforms – Samsung's BADA, HP's plans for webOS, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and the unnamed (and apparently stillborn) DOCOMO-led platform were all announced around the same time – the whole enterprise seemed somewhat reactive. Add the mobile network operators' (WAC's principal sponsors) historical inability to agree on anything and poor innovation record, and it looked highly unlikely that WAC-enabled handsets would ever see the light of day, let alone take on already established smartphone platforms.

It seems, however, that the rumors of WAC's unavoidable doom were highly exaggerated. Not only has the organization found consistent support all across the mobile industry, it has recently launched version 1.0 of its runtime specification (though I feel this was rather rushed, as just two weeks ago it was still requesting comments for an alleged "first draft"). Since both BONDI and JIL managed to get shipped into actual feature phones before their somewhat forceful merger, I'd say there's now a definite chance we'll see WAC-enabled phones in the wild sooner or later.

And I say the sooner the better. I have recently spent a couple weeks working on a proof-of-concept mobile widget for the BONDI platform, and I loved it. As it's mostly web programming with a couple extra Javascript objects, there is virtually no learning curve; it's also very portable, as whatever extensions you use can be abstracted into a Javascript file and swapped out when you want to run it on a desktop browser (which I actually did, as a shortcut for testing during development). Deployment was quite troublesome, as I had to upload the packaged application to the handset manufacturer's web portal, sign it, and then download it back; but overall the experience was very positive.

Despite all the hype around smartphones, feature phones still dominate the market. Currently JME and Flash Light rule its app development roost; however, with the right promotion the WAC could very well topple them in no time, appealing as it would to the current generation of web-savvy developers with a platform they not only already know how to program, but for which they could effortlessly port already existing applications. If only the WAC associates can take it to the next step and provide enabled devices and developer support in a timely fashion, this might just be the beginning of the open, cross-vendor, cross-platform mobile application ecosystem we've been waiting for ever since the first days of WAP.