December 30, 2008

Two Years @ dotMobi

This New Year marks my second anniversary of being CTO at dotMobi.

I’m making a big deal of this because, as of Thursday, I won’t be CTO at dotMobi. My wife Jayne, has landed a marketing job at a vineyard near Mumbai in India, and both of us, together with our two young children, are emigrating to live there.

Everything changes. So humour me. Rather than endless industry predictions you’ve been reading everywhere else this week, I’m going to indulge myself in a retrospective.

In my next post I’ll talk about what’s happening next. (Clue though: I’m not leaving the company!)

dotMobi was a fairly different place when I joined two years ago. The .mobi domain name had recently gone on sale, the company was focussed on being a domain registry, and most of the company’s technical capabilities were outsourced. But not entirely. Ronan and Ruadhan, who were both incumbent technologists when I arrived, had already started developing early versions of the developer community and the ready.mobi test tool. And through the work of Jo Rabin, the company was keenly supporting the mobile work of the W3C too. The seeds had been sown for the organisation to be able to play an important role in the mobile world – as well as for the domain community – and that’s why I took the job. During my two years, I’d like to think we stayed true to those ambitions.

Looking back, I spent relatively little time on the domain registry business per se – when I did it was mostly evangelism, blogging, and a bit of data mining. Of course we like to articulate why a mobile URL or domain is important if you want to let your users choose their experience via their address bar, and how you can use such a trustworthy mobile domain in conjunction with your existing web properties.

But dotMobi has other missions. For example, we want to help designers, web developers, marketeers, and businesses appreciate the potential of the mobile web as a whole. I’m passionate about the role that mobile will play in our on-line lives of the future, but I also recognise that someone’s got to actually build it. Given my recent career, it was natural that that agenda would shine through – and that’s been a large part of my work. With its highly reputable investors (not to mention a decent cashflow from the domain name business), the company’s uniquely placed to offer assistance to mobile developers and other companies throughout the ecosystem. It’s able to solve some nasty problems that would be unrewarding for, say, a more financially-backed company to undertake.

The hassle of mobile handset diversity, for example, is a huge pothole in the mobile web superhighway. We felt dotMobi had an obligation to help fill it in for the good of all the travellers on such a road. And so was born DeviceAtlas: designed to become the world’s leading database of mobile device information. I was lucky enough to be able to recruit WURFL founder Andrea Trasatti to the team in the summer of 2007, and convince him that dotMobi was the place to build such a thing. We launched just over 6 months later, and, although it’s a work in progress of course, we’re thrilled by what the team have created so far. (I still suspect it might end up being what we are all remembered for in years to come).

ready.mobi has also changed hugely in the last two years. It’s gone from being a fun little mobile rating tool to becoming an important part of many mobile developers’ toolkits. We’re supporting thousands of testers every day from around the world who are committed to producing quality mobile sites. With full site testing now available, and the recent release of a machine API, it’s never stood still. It remains the tool that many people know dotMobi for most.

The jewel in dotMobi’s crown is undoubtedly its developer community mobiForge (nee dev.mobi). Well over 20,000 developers regularly turn to the site for a stream of high quality material about the state of the mobile development world. Editor Ruadhan, together with all the team members and authors who contribute, deserve the credit for this. (I merely pull a few levers and press a few buttons behind the scenes; plus the occasional article). Sister site mobiThinking is also starting to make real strides.

In 2007, one of our major, if left-field, projects was find.mobi. At that time, we thought that mobile search was really an unsolved problem and that a lot of traditional search companies didn’t really understand mobile – and what mobile users want. (Hint: it’s not mangled PC web sites). Since we had to crawl an awful lot of .mobi sites for compliance reasons anyway, we started crawling other top-level domain sites as well, looking for made-for-mobile sites to flesh out a contextually-targetted directory and search service.

The technology is clever and at the time the UI was pretty unique: as an experiment it was very worthwhile. Not surprisingly, we weren’t able to give it the love and care it needed for a consumer launch. Also, incumbent services have improved since then. But… well, I still think mobile search is unfinished business: there are still some exciting possibilities being explored for the find.mobi technology.

Another technical excitement this year was the purchase of Mowser from Russell Beattie and Mike Rowehl. They’ve moved on to other things now, but the Dublin engineering team have been pouring effort into its reincarnation, dubbed ‘Instant Mobilizer’. Yes, it’s a transcoder that takes non-mobile content and adjusts the syntax to better suit a mobile device, but it comes with a few twists.

Firstly, it’s an opt-in service: small businesses for example can subscribe to the service instead of having a new site built for themselves. Secondly, we don’t just perform markup gymnastics to hack a site to pieces: we also enhance pages with additional services that might be useful for mobile users. Thirdly, we don’t think that transcoding non-mobile sites is a particularly satisfactory end-game for the industry anyway. This, if you like, is a taster service that can open businesses’ eyes to the possibilities of mobile – but one which, if it does its job well, will help to promote the advantages of building mobile services properly subsequently.

Anyway, Ronan’s been leading that project, and it’s due for a launch in the New Year, so I’m not particularly due any credit! But it’s very neat, and keep an eye open for it in months to come.

I’ve had a fantastic couple of years living in Dublin. The city’s been warm and welcoming to both me and my family. Professionally, the city has been a great base for the company. Although it’s been hard hiring world class people, we’ve always made that a non-compromisable priority – and I’m really happy with the large, talented team of mobile-centric engineers that we’ve cultured. Outside of the technical team too, there’s a great team of people at dotMobi overall. It’s always been a pleasure to work with smart, international colleagues from across all the disciplines: Neil, Trey, Paul, Amy, Norbert, Vance – and many, many others.

The last two years have seen dotMobi play a more mature, supportive role within the mobile industry, and it has broadened its brief from domain names to many other, perhaps more altruistic, activities. I won’t ever be able to say that the mobile web has taken off because of us, or because of the small part I personally played – but I certainly know that when it comes to mobile, I’ve been in the most exciting place at the most exciting time.

In the next post, a bit more about the next chapter of our lives.

Comments (4)

  1. December 31, 2008

    [...] So, my wife has a new job in India. We’re leaving Dublin to have a flavour of life in the sub-continent. It was a dilemma to figure out how to fit this in with my own career. [...]

  2. June 21, 2011

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