72 Hours in Silicon Welly: InnaWorks and the Future of the Web

I’m in Wellington, New Zealand’s new startup capital, meeting with interesting people left right and centre. Monday night I had a great conversation with Stephen Cheng, founder of InnaWorks. InnaWorks spend 1-2 years developing a product. Their first product, a J2ME optimizer that lets you fit more functionality into a mobile device’s memory footprint, is doing really well. Their second will be released early next year, is also for the mobile platform, and is terrific: Stephen’s been jetsetting in talks with games companies, Internet search companies, etc. around it. Sadly I can’t tell you what the next product is. I can relate a fascinating conversation that Stephen and I had about the looming battle between Microsoft, Adobe, and Sun, one that’s connected to the discussion of Microsoft’s web design tools going around today.

Read on for more …

Stephen wanted my take on the mobile platform space, because he sees very interesting things happening. Microsoft’s Vista struggles and the rise of the web app is creating a power vacuum in desktop apps. More precisely, desktop apps are being replaced with web apps that have offline behaviour. When you begin to think of apps in that light, you see Adobe’s Apollo (a cross-platform desktop RIA environment available as a browser plugin), Java, Microsoft’s Avalon, and Ajax apps as all possible successors to the Win32 throne.

Of course, this is long-term. Microsoft developers and users won’t jump ship overnight. But it seems a very credible view of the situation to me, and one with all sorts of fascinating angles.

For example, at one level it’s Java vs Apollo. If Flash/Flash Lite gains a lot of traction, and Adobe has made some great deals to get FlashLite onto devices, then Java loses the only significant place it’s used beyond the backend and toasters. If Java’s just a backend language, then it’s one step away from being the next COBOL. The question becomes: will IBM and Sun let this happen?

Another level has this as a standards vs proprietary battle: Flash is not open, despite the open sourcing of the Flash engine. It’s a product owned by a company and developed for commercial gain. Were the desktop to tip in Apolllo’s favour, Adobe would be in a position similar to that of Microsoft today. Microsoft’s extensions to the web are comparable to Adobe’s–they’re similarly proprietary and a point of control and exclusivity. Fans of open standards must hope that Microsoft and Adobe annihilate each other, leaving XHTML and CSS as the last technology standing on the smoking ruins of the desktop. Together they must repopulate the web sites and … no, wait, that was a movie on the scifi channel. Back to the battle.

There’s also a contrast of deployment models: Microsoft owns the browser that 90% of the world uses, but Adobe uses plugins to bypass that iron grip. If Microsoft’s technology is immediately usable, and Adobe’s is one click away, does Microsoft have a huge advantage? It probably falls down to who can make their own version of a non-standard web acceptable first: expect both to make partnerships with huge traffic sites in order to get the public comfortable with seeing the Apollo plugin fire up, or “works best with Windows Vista”. Remember those days? Itching to get back to them? Yeah, me neither.

Stephen’s obviously worried because of the impact on the mobile world. Flash Lite is the only significant challenger at the moment: the Windows Mobile stuff is an island unto itself, and I haven’t seen suggestions that Microsoft are integrating desktop application development with mobile application development in any serious way. But the cross-platform nature of Apollo could shake up everyone with a J2ME business.

I think of this as the battle of Greek legends: will Apollo, Ajax, or Atlas take on the Sun for conquest of the earth and sky? I don’t know who will win, though I back open standards from an innate faith in good triumphing, but I do know that it will be interesting to watch unfold.