01 Sep 2010 Spacer The Future of Mobile Application Development
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The Future of Mobile Application Development

This week I had a rare day out of the office and went to the Microsoft Partner Conference on the Gold Coast. The highlight
of the day for me (with the quirky exception of the kick-off speech from Nigel Marsh) was getting up close to the new Windows Phone 7.  It has a great user interface that takes a leap from the now-common 4x4 rectangles, is fast, has a very fluid UI and integrates brilliantly with MS Office, to list a few top level features.

This would be a perfect development platform for us as it would utilise many of the development skills we already have, but as we approach the launch of this new addition to the smart phone market, I am experiencing mixed feelings as to what advice to give clients when it comes to smart phone development.

The problem lies in the fact that the market already has several big players including Apple's iPhone and Google's Android hogging the spotlight, Blackberry (who, just quietly, had more sales in Q1 than either the iPhone or Android) and the open source Symbian - used on
many Nokia phones.  So with so many platform options leading to a segmented market, how can we tell clients that the best course for mobile development is to build an app for the latest phone to market, or in fact any one particular type of smart phone.

In considering this issue it brings strong comparisons between two particular on-going battles: PC versus Mac and the war of the web browsers. The war of the web browsers is one that I've been intimately familiar with since starting in this industry in the late 90's and is one from a development point of view is currently quite stable with the common browsers all generally compatible, providing you code to W3C standards.

My quick Google based research for this post brought me to an article, written around the time of the Android launch, by John Blossom: Yeah, There's a Web for That: Where are Mobile Apps Really Taking Us?

This highlighted some great points including the (IMO) accurate statement that "most media companies view mobile
applications as little more than Compuserve-like kiosks from which they can serve slightly jazzed-up versions of their Web page content"

I think the key reasons for mobile OS companies to want more apps, is to have an additional source of revenue (a percentage of app sale revenue) and, because of the availability of a particular app, as a method of locking subscribers into using their phones. This is especially worth noting as, just like with the battle between PC and Macs, the general capabilities, features and performance of these phones is converging, so it is less likely that the performance of a phone can be used as a distinct selling point.

Clearly smart phones is not a medium that can be ignored. The opportunities for creating a device based or an integrated experience will continue to grow, especially as the boundary between smart  phone, ipad, slate, netbook, notebook etc blurs. 

So with the introduction of more smart phones OS's to the market, it is becoming very hard to choose a single type of phone to focus on when developing an application.

The clearest answer to this problem is to focus on the smart phone web browser. Each of the phones has a capable browser, built in the era of web standards (and generally complying..), so building a mobile web application, you can conquer the segmentation issue by providing an optimised mobile experience to all smart phone users.

For a while we will revisiting the issues around browser compatibility including which features (GPS, contacts etc) can be revealed to the app, but these will be addressed and the process of developing for a mobile will mirror the process of developing for the web.

There are notable exceptions to this - for example if the smart phone app is to be used in a closed environment, such as a single business where the model of handset can be controlled by policy, or if the application needs to utilise a unique feature on the one of the phones.

But for general development where the audience is the public I believe the answer is cross-compatible, one site for all mobiles, mobile web applications.

POSTED IN What's New / Strategy

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