9 minutes reading time (1711 words)

Building the Future Mobile Web with Joomla!

Building the Future Mobile Web with Joomla!

How I went from a Joomla! newbie to a mobile app developer in six years and what I think the future may hold for the CMS’ and Mobile.

Total Newbie

As a new immigrant to Canada in 2004, I bartered for my first web design job with a simple promise to my new employer: “you don’t have to pay me for what I don’t know how to do.” Well, I didn’t know how to do anything. HTML and CSS? No clue. As part of an anti-poverty program where I worked in Virginia, US, I had learned a little about fixing up old computers for schools, but that was where my technical knowledge ended.

I have always been a hands-on learner, so I taught myself by diving into my first website project. I started working on a new “content management system” called Mambo and learning web design and programming in-reverse. I charged about 5% of my working hours back to the business. There were countless hours of grappling with confusing technical terms, figuring out difficult tasks and lots and lots of internet research.

Luckily for me, one of the best things about the open-source, free web site platform I was using was that it provided me the opportunity to learn. As well, I was able to engage with a vibrant and enthusiastic community forum of fellow users who helped answer my questions and point the way to additional resources. For a total newbie like me, this community of like-minds and accessible training material made all the difference in my self-directed education.

Introducing Joomla!

When Joomla! split off from Mambo in 2005, the company I worked for made the smart decision in making Joomla! its primary platform for web design services. When that company closed its doors the following year, I spent two days driving from city to city, talking to each former client and promoting my newly acquired web skills. Every single one of them signed up to work with me – suddenly, I had my own web design business!

In crafting the direction of my new business venture, I was particularly inspired by the benefits of an open-source, free content-management-system. At the time, I had heard about a local environmental clean-up agency that had spent $60,000 on their web site and was paying $300 - $600 an hour for simple, non-technical content updates. The core of the web site was a simple, flash-based map with a few icons. Sigh. I could do better – both technically and ethically.

After seeing this “bad mechanic” model in web design – the use of proprietary and exclusive platforms that require expensive updates to maintain – I was inspired to start CartaNova and serve green and not-for-profit clients with Joomla! At CartaNova, we were determined to provide real alternatives to help these kinds of organizations grow affordably and Joomla! fit that need perfectly.

Fighting Mobile Walled Gardens

The ability to create a powerful web site and customize specific features is a key element of what makes Joomla! so attractive so many types of organizations. For desktop sites, I think the open-source CMS has proven itself to be a clear winner. Yet today, we’re seeing another big gap in the cost and quality of a web presence for organizations – mobile.

Today, more than half of all local internet searches are done on a mobile device. Smart phone and tablet traffic is exploding and expected to overtake PC and laptop traffic within 2-4 years. Despite the growing importance of having a mobile presence, most organizations struggle to address the “mobile question.” App Store or “native” apps are viewed as both powerful and usable but – and this is big “but” – they are generally prohibitively expensive (priced per platform) and out of reach for most companies (the exception here would be the simple app-deliveries with minimal features and partial/slow RSS feeds.)

Comparatively, mobile site solutions (responsive CSS and mobile themes) are great at changing a desktop site in terms of a more friendly visual display, but they struggle with mobile touch-based “context.” Instead of slowly loading content page-by-page, ideal touch-based features should include: a click-to-call and email number that displays up front; persistent and large navigation icons that always show the user “where” they are; key mobile components (like events and touch-based social sharing); and, basically, the intuitive feeling of shuffling through a deck of cards like an app.

For better or worse, it is clear that native “app store” apps have demonstrated huge business advantages on lead-generation, use, distribution, re-engagement through installation and overall results. Businesses and not-for-profits care about results and benefits – not technology – and on this battle the closed, you-must-be-approved-to-be-included “walled gardens” of Apple and, to a lesser extent, Android have already won the app day.

This is an incredibly frustrating assessment for people like myself who believe in the open, standards-compliant mobile web, and also want to create mobile solutions that are every bit as good as “native” apps. Tim Berners-Lee, key founder of the web, has taken a clear position on this situation – it is time to fight back against the “walled gardens” with HTML5 and make the web more free. See his article “Long Live the Web.”

A New Hope – HTML5

As web designers at CartaNova, my business partner Robert Porter and I quickly recognized that our green and community not-for-profit clients had no way to affordably participate on the mobile web. So we took a walk. We spent two days hiking on the Bruce Trail near Tobermory, Ontario, talking about the future of the web. We wanted to make the mobile/web more affordable, accessible, and democratic. We imagined how we could create something that had the touch “feel” and context-friendly benefits of “native” apps, but also utilized the marketing and “works anywhere” benefits of the classical web.

We returned home with a plan: Weever. In October 2010, we developed our first prototype – it worked! Realizing that we had the potential to change the mobile web in our hands, we began dedicating all of our energy and meagre financial resources into shaping Weever Apps. Weever Apps is a new kind of app – a HTML5 “web app.” But what is that?

What’s a Web App? What’s an App?

When talking about apps (web-based or otherwise), the terminology can get pretty confusing. For instance, Joomla! was once viewed as a web-based app after all (e.g., a “web application”).

The best way to explain it is this: Weever Apps is a new kind of app – a HTML5 web-based app. “Web Apps” look and feel like native, machine-programmed apps, but they can launch instantly in the browser from a URL or QR Code. They can also be installed to drive user re-engagement.

Since HTML5-based web apps work across most popular touch phones and tablets, these mobile apps do not require download and load instantly for mobile users (and sometimes, go full-screen as well). This marketing benefit (or reach) is the key driver of HTML5 today and almost every industry assessment of the mobile web is projecting massive growth in web-app technologies over the next few years. Internet powerhouses like Facebook and Google are now pushing web-apps. Even Apple is starting to concede that HTML5 may be a superior format for the 80% of businesses today which currently have no mobile presence.

This is what we made: Weever Apps is our web-app invention which generates HTML5 web-based apps from Joomla! and Wordpress sites while also integrating multiple feeds from around the web. Our plugin is an “app manager” which allows you to select mobile-context appropriate content and social feeds from your site and around the web – and then share that app by QR code or your own URL.

Our philosophy is to be sensitive to the fact that the web grows quickly and goes through periods where organizations have disconnected, but valuable, content strung across multiple services. Our goal with Weever Apps is to “weave” all of those intangibles (forms, videos, photos, social media, etc.) into one mobile app presentation for the best marketing and brand benefits.

Essentially, we’ve made an HTML5 app-maker for modern web sites. In the process we also created a new type of open-source API/Feed – “R3S” a sort of “RSS3” for the more modern web. We were frustrated by the relatively slow and clumsy approach that RSS takes for delivering information back and forth across multiple web services, so we’ve created a faster, sleeker method for delivering entire articles or social feeds, searches, and more, across multiple devices and platforms.

Remember where you came from…

Joomla! is what has made all of this possible. Open-source, free software platforms drive innovation on the web because they lower access barriers for both creative developers and organizations. Open-source isn’t just a technology – it’s a community of people working together to solve common problems and create useful things.

Veteran web designers may recall that before Firefox had gained popularity Microsoft briefly announced Internet Explorer 6 as the “last web browser.” We all know how that worked out (see the funeral pics here).

We haven’t forgotten how CartaNova and Weever Apps started. This week, we made Weever Apps free to use for the entire open-source community. While we can’t release our touch-based app-generating server code (for obvious reasons), our CMS plugins, feeds and most other code is totally GPL and free as well. We hope to see some cool new HTML5 apps made – you can view a few that have already been done here: http://weeverapps.com/apps

Hey you! Volunteer!

Through the course of learning Joomla!, web design, and finally HTML5 app-making methods, we’ve been volunteering on the community forums and contributing little widgets and code wherever we can (find me in the forums as “HoldenCreative”).

We hope that you will consider doing the same. Contributing back to Joomla! isn’t just the ethical thing to do for a project that has given us all so much – it’s also a way to ensure the web is built for everyone and not just the privileged few. When we do that, the entire community within, and outside of, Joomla! benefits. And that means a more open web for everybody, everywhere, today and into the future.

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