The mobile web: 2.0 into one doesn't go

Hoping some Californian magic pixie dust might fall upon the sleepy world of telephony, the Symbian Smartphone Show organisers devoted an afternoon of presentations to the topic of “Social Media”. Would Web 2.0 make it to the phone?

It had a bit of your Dad at the Disco about it, and even Symbian’s no-nonsense research VP, David Wood, had been caught up in the excitement.

In his briefing notes, David posited that “in Web 2.0, the network itself has intelligence, rather than just being a bit-pipe for pre-cooked information”. When previously rational people start to attribute agency and purpose to inanimate objects, it’s a warning sign – as my lampshade reminded me this morning.

In the end, we didn’t get the culture clash we expected, and by the end of the afternoon it seemed apparent that the mobile world needed “Web 2.0″ quite a lot less than the Californian web cultists needed to go mobile.

And as the clock-ticked towards 5pm – hometime! – a rare consensus appeared to emerge: network integrity and security should not be compromised by script kiddies who’d just discovered the CPAN Perl archive; most ‘user generated content’ wasn’t going to interest anyone; a blanket of pervasive HSDPA-speed 3G beats looking for an insecure Wi-Fi hotspot; and PCs were dumb, because you didn’t have them with you, and they didn’t know where they were.

That’s more commonsense than you expect to hear in a lifetime of “Web 2.0″ gatherings. In fact, even expressing such heresy is enough to get one excommunicated and sent to purgatory – for the web utopians are nothing if not a cult.

But to reach terra firma we had to negotiate a rocky terrain. Beginning with the buzzwords.

You know when something is labelled “social media” you’ve already arrived at a leaky abstraction that’s going to sink at any moment. Add in an insulting, eye-rolling piece of nonsense like “democratisation of creativity” and you know you’ve really reached the technology world’s Remedial Class.

We’ll digress for a moment simply to point out the bleeding obvious. When someone uses a witless phrase like “social media”, they’re informing you that they’re unable to distinguish the act of bearing witness from the business of being surveilled. Surveillance is big business these days, and technology can record everything we do or say. But that doesn’t mean when we say something that we want it to be heard, or transferred out of context, or remembered. Or in the words of Google’s ominous mission statement, “organised and made useful”. Useful to, er…who?

All art is social and created as an act of testimony, but most speech isn’t, it’s designed to be forgotten – and the web cultists either, through ignorance or cynicism, willfully blur this distinction.

So it was refreshing to hear Orange’s Mark Watts-Jones, in concluding his presentation, remind the audience that most electronically-recorded “content” wasn’t of interest to anyone else. Orange seemed to be approaching the explosion of recording technology not as a gateway to a cybernetic all-recording uber-mind, but simply sharing your photos with your friends (or family).

Sling Media also disappointed the cult of the web wingnuts by pointing out that more practical matters were at hand. It was slightly ridiculous that in this “always-on”, always-connected” world we couldn’t access our own stuff – like TV channels we’d already subscribed to, music we’d already bought, or photographs we’d already taken – on our gadgets. They might as well be never-on, and never-connected – at least we could take a hard copy round to show the folks.

By contrast, and at such events you can spot the losers because of the vast gap between their rhetoric and their achievements, was Ajit Jaokar. Like someone frantically banging a shoe against a gerkin in the hope of making a goulash, Ajit is determined to bring the utopian nonsense of Web 2.0 to mobile phones. He runs a Mobile Web 2.0 blog – and he’s written a book about it all, he reminded us. (“Bang, bang! Shoe – make stew!”)

But recent evidence – a blog entry dated from only this month entitled “The Dawn of the Widget Widget Web” – suggests much of the collateral damage has unfortunately fallen on Ajit himself, with regard to his cognitive and linguistic faculties.

Asked to sum up the biggest promise/challenge of Web 2.0, Anjit Anjit could see no downside – but the upside was the “…change in the balance of power – the empowerment of the user”.

Presumably through Widget Widgets.

I was reminded of Charles Eicher’s description of the chasm between Google’s promise, as the utopians really wanted it to be, and Google’s reality as it is today:

“Many people have waxed lyrical about how Google was ‘God’s Brain’ and contained some sort of magical Gestalt of all of mankind’s knowledge. But now it’s like an autistic brain that can’t say anything except advertising jingles”

On we went.

Someone who should know better – Cognima’s Andy Tiller – professed himself smitten with a similarly autistic outburst by another presenter – “capturing intelligence at point of inspiration”. A cold bath for you, Andy.

While the most curious demonstration of the afternoon came from two faces we recognised from years ago in Silicon Valley, Greg Simon and Manu Chatterjee. Now at a start-up called Lampdesk, they’d created a “Web 2.0″ runtime that bundled an XML interpreter, SQL database, and a SOAP stack. This was WebVM.

It’s an unwitting homage to 1060’s NetKernel, but as you might guess, a lot less useful because unlike NetKernel, it isn’t built on a sound architectural (and philosophical) basis.

And this was reflected in its demo: which showed an AJAX clone of Microsoft Word – complete with formatting ribbon – running on the 320×240 display of a smartphone. I could almost see half of that formatting ribbon. Marvellous.

It was only as the afternoon concluded that collective sanity broke out. One member of the audience said he’d been offered a job by a German company, only for it to be mysteriously withdrawn. He remembered that five years earlier, he’d made disparaging comments about that company’s entire product line in a semi-private forum, but this was readily findable on Google. It was as an eloquent rebuttal as one might find to the “empowerment of users” rhetoric coming from the web cult.

In their resilient, secure, universally affordable, and universally accessible technology, the phone people already have what the web people hanker after, but will never have.

And in SMS, they have the only interface most people will ever want to use on the go. Let the web “evolve” into a crummy open-access cable channel – you could hear them thinking. Which it very nearly is already.