Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lotusphere 2010 and Mobile Portals

Don Sheppard, Solution Director

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at Lotusphere 2010 was not about a new version with enhanced features, nor about a new product that will revolutionize the industry. It was a simple session on taking existing portals and making the content display better on mobile devices using the IBM Mobile Portal Accelerator.

Viewing web content on phones and PDAs has been around for a number of years, but in the last year it has really caught on. During 2009, we saw a large increase in the amount of smartphones in use. Apple shipped the new iPhone 3GS, Google Android-based phones like the Nexus One and Droid gained traction, and companies added more types of Windows Mobile-based phones.

As the popularity of interacting with the web using a phone continues to grow, more companies will want to make access to existing content easier on mobile devices. Some companies will build custom applications targeted to devices like Androids or iPhones, but others will not have the time or resources to build device-specific applications. For those companies who want to optimize the mobile user experience of an existing Websphere Portal application, the IBM Mobile Portal Accelerator provides them with the tools and a runtime engine that can optimize the display of a portal page for over 7000 devices.

Historically, creating a site accessible to mobile devices meant stripping out all visually appealing elements and presenting a bare-bones, text only version. This was because every device would render the content differently and few supported advanced technologies like Flash or Javascript. Also, the way a user interacts with a website on a desktop machine is very different than how a user interacts with a site on a mobile device. Desktop or laptops screens tend to be wider than they are tall, so most sites use navigation elements on the top and left sides of the screens. This type of navigation doesn’t work well on mobile devices where the screens are narrow. To deal with these issues, companies could create a mobile page and format the page to support the lowest common device, but this sacrifices the robust experience possible on new devices. Today’s mobile devices still have vast differences; for example an Apple iPhone has a 320 x 480 pixel screen, Rim Blackberry has 320 x 240 pixels, and Google’s Nexus One has a whopping 800 x 480 pixel display.

Mobile Portal Accelerator solves the problem of supporting different types of mobile devices by maintaining a database of device specifications where the attributes of over 7000 mobile devices are mapped. By abstracting the page layout, items can be formatted and converted to provide an exceptional web experience on each device.

Mobile Portal Accelerator uses XML Device Independent Mark-up Extensions (XDIME) to describe the content. One set of XDIME is created to map UI elements and Layout Policies are used to determine where content is shown on mobile devices.

Using XDIME reduces the time to deliver content, because one set of markup is created and can support all devices in the database. As new devices are introduced, a subscription service is available to provide updates. This means a developer no longer has to be concerned with updating the application as new devices are introduced.

Mobile Portal Accelerator is currently available for the IBM Websphere Portal 6.1 platform, supports the publishing of Lotus Web Content Management content, and widgets. It also features eclipse-based plugins called the Mobile Portal Toolkit which works with RAD and RSA to develop and test portlets.

Don Sheppard is a Solutions Director at Prolifics and Master Certified IT Architect. Don spent 13 years at IBM and was former CTO of their National Portal Services practice before working for Prolifics.