iPad interface

Future web interfaces

Can the humble browser cope with all the different devices its content has to work on, or will the vested interests in the 'walled-garden' approach always win out?

The World Wide Web was originally the name given to the first browser written by Sir Tim Berners Lee - and was not, as it exists now, a set of standards that all browser applications are recommended to follow to ensure that web pages can be viewed using them.

Then, as with everything, the task facing Berners Lee was far more simple 20 years ago than it is today. The Next Step monitor was 400x600px, black and white, with comparatively primitive graphics. Today, the browser has spread beyond the desktop PC to the smartphone and now to new types of gadgetry, including TV set-top boxes and printers. This trend is likely to continue.

Most recently, Google TV was launched - the search giant's solution for bringing Web content into living rooms. Then there's the HP Photosmart Premium TouchSmart web all-in-one printer (see p78 for a review), which features a 4.3in colour LCD panel that provides access to Web-based applications. Of course, there will be a variety of tablet devices available following the launch of Apple's game-changing iPad earlier this year.

The overarching fact about all these devices is that they do not adhere to much in the way of display standards. Each device has a different resolution and screen ratio from the next. A one-size-fits-all browser standard is not going to cut the mustard.

Modern browsers do not simply display Web pages. Instead they act as an application platform, an entertainment portal, and a gateway to documents that are securely stored online.

Chrome OS

This is exemplified by the imminent launch of Google's Chrome OS - a browser-based operating system. Users given the ability to launch into the Web with greater ease and speed than before.

This demonstrates that it is not just screen sizes and resolutions that are changing, but how we interact with Web environments too. In the future, we might not only read Web pages, but hold interactive conversations with them with the integration of voice recognition technologies.

The W3C is currently investigating the feasibility of incorporating voice recognition and speech synthesis technologies within Web pages. A new incubator group will submit their findings next year outlining strategies of adding voice and speech features into HTML - the consortium's standard for rendering Web pages. This effort has attracted the collaboration of engineers at companies such as Google, Microsoft and the Mozilla Foundation, among others.

Commercial mobile developers are already working on this technology. Microsoft promises robust voice-driven features in its upcoming Windows Phone 7, and Google includes a voice-based Web search app for the Android smartphone operating system.

The Internet search giant has been quietly working on Google Voice - a relatively new service that has caught the attention of the telephony industry. It works like a telephone number that you can use from your mobile phone, smartphone, or from Gmail, and is gaining traction, offering features that are either unavailable with other phone numbers or available only at a fee. It is still only officially available in the USA.

Most recently, the W3C has set up the HTML Speech Incubator Group, studying the feasibility of developing a standard Web interface for both speech recognition and synthesis. The group is aiming for possible integration into the upcoming HTML5 standard, which would enable the technology to be used across multiple browsers. Employing built-in or plug-in voice recognition and speech synthesis engines, browsers could read pages aloud or permit users to fill out Web forms by voice.

Voice XML

At first glance, this work may overlap another W3C voice initiative, VoiceXML, but the two projects differ significantly. VoiceXML would not work particularly well for the Web because it is primarily designed for voice-driven applications, such as telephone-based voice response systems - where it is widely used.

But this is not the only area of speech technology that the W3C is working on. The organisation recently launched version 3.0 of VoiceXML which added semantic descriptions of the features, and organised the functionality into modules.

The W3C also plans to release version 1.1 of SSML (the Speech Synthesis Markup Language) - designed for use with VoiceXML - the W3C's standard XML format for specifying interactive voice dialogues between a human and a computer - that will incorporate Asian languages and provide developers more flexibility with voice selection and handling of content in unexpected languages.

The emergence of Web-based apps, including productivity suites like Google Docs and the new Microsoft Office Web Apps, could quicken the demise of traditional desktop apps to simpler browser-based application development. But the Web still has to tackle the emergence of standalone mobile apps and so-called 'hybrid' apps, which are essentially web pages which have executable code embedded in them and behave like an app.

These types of Cloud-Computing environments are revolutionising desktops, and are also likely to have a revolutionary effect on mobile app development as well - but for that to happen, many argue that robust standards need to be put in place.

For this to come to pass, however, fierce rivals must agree on standards that would enable this browser-based world to exist - and whether that will happen is the big question. Will Apple - which has achieved great success with its App Store which runs exclusively on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch - agree to demolish its 'walled-garden' approach to portable computing? And Microsoft has its own tendencies - namely ignoring browser standards in favour of its own technologies.

Certainly with the soon-to-be-released IE9 version of its browser, Microsoft appears to be playing ball. The Redmond-based giant seems committed to adhering to emerging Web standards such as HTML5, which will allow developers to build dynamic apps that work equally well across various browsers, including those on mobile phones and tablets that don't support power-hungry browser plug-ins such as Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, and Microsoft Silverlight.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs, perhaps the highest-profile proponent of HTML5, has until very recently been waging a war against Adobe Flash, the widely used browser run-time environment. Apple claims that it is too great a drain on a portable device's performance and battery life.

However, Flash still has a number of weighty supporters. Virtually all the other mobile platforms are expected to support Flash in the near future. Therefore, HTML5 may not spell the end of proprietary browser plug-ins just yet.

Vested interests

The stance of the various tech companies on HTML5 is, somewhat predictably, based on how they will be affected by the new standard. Apple is highly motivated to push HTML5. It would allow the company to: compete in rich-media delivery on the Web against Flash and Silverlight; create rich Web apps in MobileMe; support third-party rich web-apps on its iPhone and Mac platforms; and reduce its exposure to incompatibilities and security issues related to third-party web-alternative plugins such as Flash and Silverlight.

Google's vested interest in the new standard stems from its desire to deliver rich new Web apps that can better compete against desktop alternatives (such as Office), creates a level playing-field for all Web browsers to foster competition, eliminates its need to use Flash for serving YouTube videos, and allows the company to deliver Chrome OS as an alternative to a conventional operating system on PCs.

Even Microsoft feels the need to support HTML5 because of its falling market share in the browser wars.

For this very same reason, Adobe's support has been qualified. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen says: 'I think the challenge for HTML5 will continue to be how you get a consistent display of HTML5 across browsers. And when you think about when the rollout plans that are currently being talked about, they feel like it might be a decade before HTML-5 sees standardisation across the number of browsers that are going to be out there.'

Then again, once Adobe figures out how to make money selling authoring tools for HTML5, its thinking is likely to change.

The gaming industry has often led the way with technologies that enable future graphical user interfaces (GUIs). Complex 3D games already run inside browsers using Flash and Silverlight. HTML5 might make browsers more gamer-friendly using burgeoning web standards such as WebGL, which provides a 3D graphics application programming interface (API) in a browser without the use of plug-ins. But gaming companies are currently rushing to bring out motion-control devices and 3D technologies to their consoles and portable devices.

Everyone cites the scene in Minority Report, where Tom Cruise browses a 3D virtual database and flicks through what resemble dimensionalised web pages like some kind of techno Jacques Tati. Combine 3D with gyroscopic motion controllers with some clever programming and science and you can bring this version of the future Web to reality.

But in this case, fiction first followed fact. John Underkoffler, currently chief scientist at Oblong Technologies, was working in the MIT Media Lab when the producers of Minority Report hired him and his idea. Oblong has actually invented a spatial operating system, which was demonstrated at last year's TED conference - and Underkoffler predicts that this type of gesture technology will be in homes by 2015.

'I think in five years' time, when you buy a computer, you'll get this,' he said.

Natural interaction

Microsoft is about to launch controller-free gesture support for its Xbox 360 console. But the company is licensing the 3D-camera technology from an Israeli firm PrimeSense, which is also working to incorporate this technology into personal computers. It has already made deals to embed the tech in home PCs for release toward the end of 2010 - and a cable company is working on a set-top box using the technology for a 2011 debut.

'Natural Interaction creates a bridge between machines and humans that allows users to interact with technology in a natural, human way,' said Uzi Breier, chief marketing officer of PrimeSense who added that the company 'sees a near future in which the entire ecosystem of consumer electronics co-exists with people in a way that makes life easier by bringing together all the elements of the human sensory experience - voice, sight, touch, biometrics, movements and gestures'.

Its not an insurmountable leap of imagination to see that the Web will feature quite strongly in this interaction.

However, the 3D web also has a plausible future on portable devices claims Bob Tait, director of marketing at mobile chip company Movidius. The company has launched a new chip set to enable mobile device manufacturers to add glasses-free 3D capabilities on handsets.

'We are currently in the process of convincing mobile manufacturers to use the chip on their devices - and some have already signed up for it,' claims Tait - although he was coy about revealing their names. The company expects 3D mobiles to be previewed next year.

The Myriad MA1133 3D chip is designed to run stereoscopic 3D images on lenticular screens for mobile devices, which will then be able to connect to 3D-enabled TVs via an HDMI cable.

The 3D chip, which has been designed to support ARM CPUs used in the majority of smartphones, will be able to allow 3D photography and will be capable of converting 2D images into 3D. The chip will also support downloaded 3D and 2D content.

The TV is where open standards on the Web have yet to be conquered. Here there are vested interests galore in the shape of TV channels, rights holders, platform providers, and so on. Set-top box manufacturers are highly proprietary, and are unlikely to embrace open standards.

For example, Apple recently relaunched its Apple TV device, whose operating system is now based on the company's portable OS. Google TV is a software and hardware platform for set-top boxes and HDTVs based on the Android operating system. Both systems will offer browsers, but the experience of accessing streamed video and audio through a browser will pale when compared with the experience through paid-for and free widgets and apps.

The 'browser everywhere' is a movable target for the World Wide Web Consortium, but one which the organisation is battling for tooth and nail. Despite the various vested interests, this is an intriguing period in the development of the Web where no individual company can claim to dominate the Web development landscape. There are a variety of browser technologies out there. Even Microsoft only has a 65 per cent market share - and it can no longer impose new proprietary code in the way that it could in the past.

These days browser developers are more keen to integrate new standards in their technology rather than differentiate with bespoke gimmicks.

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