There are many articles and blogs out there offering support and advice on how you should approach your mobile strategy. The kind of questions we are told to ask ourselves are, should I build an App or mobile site, should I develop for iOS, Android or Windows, should I build a separate tablet offering… STOP!
You should only be asking yourself one question… How do I place myself in a position to cater for all of these!
Now although none of these articles are necessarily wrong I think they are missing out on a key bit of advice that would likely ensure you aren’t faced with the same issue in 5 years time when the next big thing starts to arise.
Lets face it, it’s not just about mobile, it’s also about smart TV’s, games consoles, e-readers, social networks, tablets, the cloud etc.
So, how do we cater for all of these and how can you ensure your company can adapt quickly to current and future emerging technologies? The answer is simple really, start with the foundations.
If you build a new extension on your house you can’t just lay the bricks, you have to dig deep and build the foundations first and the same applies for online platforms.
The heart and soul of any online service is the data that feeds it, so this is where you should start. After all, the current and future platforms you cater for will still be using the same data, it’s just how that data is presented to the user that changes.
Below is the order I feel a product strategy should take, regardless of the products you are looking at catering for.
My advice for any online business that is looking to branch out to other platforms is to build a strong webservice/API. Essentially an API is a system that allows your data to be accessed and presented in a way that can be easily understood by other technologies. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be a universal plug adapter. No matter where you are in the world you can connect to any plug socket using one product. When we travel we don’t cut the cords of our electrical items and add new plugs to each one, we just take an adapter that converts our plug to a connection that is compatible with the power supply of the country we are visiting. An API does the same thing. Regardless of the product we want to integrate with an API gives us a universal solution that can plug into any system, whether it be iOS, Android, Symbian, Perl, PHP, ASP… you name it!
So, build a strong and flexible webservice for your online service and your life will be made a lot easier when developing new products. It leaves you free to evolve your service. Development time and cost will be hugely reduced and will allow you to be more experimental with emerging technologies. Whether your business develops its products in-house or not, the universal solution of an API will prove to be a huge time saver and a strong foundation for any product.
When building a house its important to choose the right materials. The bricks we choose should be able to support the structure we are building and should take into consideration where they are going to be placed and the different environmental conditions they are going to be exposed to. The same applies to developing online products, we should choose a ‘material’ that can stand the test of time and adapt to the different environments it will be exposed to.
We are fortunate enough now to not have to make the decision of whether to build an app or a mobile site. There is no reason why we can’t build both! This is namely thanks to HTML 5. HTML 5 is quickly becoming a popular codebase and more importantly fully supported by the majority of new products including Smart Phones, Tablets, PC’s, Smart TV’s, Games Consoles… the list goes on!
HTML 5 allows us to build a service that can mimic the user experience we get from native applications and best of all its in a language that most web developers should find easy to understand. What’s even better is that you can build one solution that serves as your mobile site and mobile/tablet app. You can even utilize features that were previously only available to a natively coded app, such as push notifications. Using services like PhoneGap.com your HTML5 site quickly transforms into a feature rich application that can be launched as an app across all the major app stores.
So, the ‘material’ you choose is almost as important as the foundation you place it on. Although HTML 5 may be the best ‘material’ now, it pays to constantly keep up to date with emerging codebases to ensure that the products you build are as compatible and future proof as possible.
As with every property the final touches lie in the finish. The finishing touches serve two purposes, 1 to make the property look good and 2 functionality. The form our living room takes is often dictated by where we plan to place the TV, there is no point in placing the TV in an awkward position that isn’t viewable when sitting on the sofa. Each room in a home serves a different purpose and the final finish will not only define the room but will have a functional purpose.
The final touches on an online product are essentially the same. We need to consider the environment each product will be used in and the device that will be used to access it. Different devices function differently. E.g. a person that uses a smart TV to browse online content will navigate in a very different way to one that uses their mobile. By making small tweaks to a design for each platform we can ensure that the best possible experience can be gained. There is no need for a major change for each platform, it may just be a case of layout that will differ.
Taking a modular approach to design will really aid in achieving a flexible template that can easily change its layout and navigation depending on the device that is being used to access it. Certain layout rules can then be put in place relating to screen size and navigation method. A good example could be the difference between a phone app and a tablet app. Since the screen on a tablet is larger it makes sense to allow the user to navigate the app or site more quickly by dedicating some of the space on the screen for fixed navigation. However for a phone this navigation should only appear when the user wants to see it, which in turn ensures that the limited space available is maximized.
The rule with any strategy is to think ahead, don’t just think of the short-term solution, rather devise a solution that is scalable. This more than ever is an important approach to take, with so many platforms emerging you will quickly lose out by focusing on one product.
With so many platforms and digital storage solutions its difficult to gauge where it’s all going, which platforms will stand the test of time and which are just a phase. Mobile phones, laptops, desktops, tablets, games consoles, smart TV’s, the cloud, software, hardware.. to name just a few.
I think the answer is simple, none will die but all will merge. I see the future of technology existing in 2 basic forms, terminals and the cloud.
The terms desktop, mobile and TV will be replaced by environments: work, travel, home.
Perhaps the best way to explore this theory is to see how each current medium will translate to these ‘environments’.
Desktop = Work
Desktop will remain but not as we currently know it. Our machines wont have the need for local storage, instead everything we digitally own will be stored on a hard drive on a server somewhere in the cloud. The desktop will essentially just be a monitor and possibly a keyboard. We won’t own physical hardware, we will merely subscribe to a virtual console. We will subscribe to different software packages and applications and will have the option to upgrade to a faster performing console with greater storage. There will no longer be the issue of having to update our software or upgrade our machines, this will automatically happen. Pirating software will be virtually impossible and the risk of losing data a thing of the past. Technology and software will no longer be owned and our machines will be replaced by terminals (connected monitors) which will exist in different forms and sizes. Our work computers will essentially be replaced by a profile that we are granted access to on our virtual console. Leaving an employer will result in that profile being instantly removed. Perhaps our console ID will take the form of our national insurance number, the moment we start working for a new employer our work profile will be activated. Certainly a good security solution for companies that have sensitive data. Since physical storage will no longer exist there is no risk of the data getting into the wrong hands, well.. short of any high level hacking!
Mobile = Travel
Whether we are at work or on the go the console we access will be exactly the same, it’s just the terminal that will differ. Mobile will remain, however the reliance on local device storage and performance will be irrelevant as it will merely be a wireless terminal that accesses a remote console. Suddenly this gives us the power of huge servers in the palm of our hands. Losing your phone will no longer mean losing your contacts, music or pictures, as none of that data would exist on your phone. This will also hugely reduce the amount of data that needs to travel to the phone as all scripts will run server-side. All that will differ will be the layout of the console and content to cater for the smaller screen size. You could borrow a friend’s phone and run it as your own by logging into your personal console. With the increased evolution of screen technology our small mobile devices will also transform into a tablet, mainly thanks to either projection or flexi screen technology.
The key things to note here is that every terminal we have access to will be our desktop, mobile, TV and Games console all rolled into one.
With NFC, mobiles will also soon become our payment medium, this will alleviate the worry of losing your wallet. Should you lose your mobile terminal you could simply login to the retailers terminal to pay for the goods, at least until you receive your replacement mobile terminal.
TV = Home
Although Smart TV’s are on the rise I think the form they exist in now will be short-lived. In the future there wont be locally based apps and software, it too will act as a terminal. We wont need a sky box or digital receivers as these will be services we just subscribe to through our console. So again the TV services we subscribe to will be available via any terminal we have access to, whether it be our phones or TV.
When we go on holiday we will login to our console via the hotel room TV and access all our saved TV programs as well as our work documents, contacts and pictures. No longer will we be restricted to the content the hotel subscribes too.
So, how will this evolution improve our lives?
I think the main benefit will be consolidation; the pure fact that we can access everything we digitally own wherever we are is a great and efficient solution. Currently our data is duplicated across multiple devices, I for example have all my pictures and videos on my phone, laptop, memory sticks and backup hard drives, never mind the pictures I have copied for families and friends. The future solution will ensure that only one version of that data will exist and that version can be enjoyed across multiple terminals and shared with friends and family, in turn giving me greater control over how my data is shared. Also the risk of losing our data, whether it be work documents, pictures, emails, contacts and text messages will become a virtually impossible scenario.
As a consumer the personalization benefits will ensure that we are only offered products and services that are of interest to us. More than ever our digital footprint will paint an accurate picture of who we are and what we like to do. Whether it be our spending habits, favorite TV shows, working/commuting habits, music preferences, whether we like to take videos more than pictures, how often we speak to family and friends… The list goes on!
Another great benefit is less waste. Since we will no longer need to constantly update the hardware we own it will ensure that we will slowly shift towards a more efficient and less wasteful society. We will instantly benefit from software updates and service upgrades without the reliance on buying new hardware.
As with everything however there are the negatives.
The greatest risk here is summed up by the old saying ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. By putting everything we own in one place we risk losing everything, should something go wrong and our console go offline, it wont just mean losing access to our music and pictures but also our keys, wallet, phone, TV, work documents etc. One would hope that the blackout would be short-term but its clear that any blackout period would result in a major disruption to our lives.
For the same reason it leaves us more open to attack. What would be a greater terrorist target than wiping out the servers that hold our lives together. Traditional terrorism could take the form of hackers. We have recently seen a case of terrorists hacking in and bringing down the Tel Aviv stock exchange and El Al sites.
Privacy is a huge potential issue too, since we don’t physically store or own the data there is the risk of others seeing what we own and do. Now I’m a believer in that if you are not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to hide but what would happen if that data somehow got into the wrong hands.
So, mobile is the next big thing!….Well, if the next big thing is a more compact way of viewing the web on the go then yes. However there is nothing new here, all that’s really happened is screens have got smaller, batteries lighter and communication wireless.
So… Are iPhone Apps the future, should all online businesses have one?
The problem with iPhone App production is the amount of time, effort, skill and cost it takes to develop, never mind the fact that the code cannot be re-used for other mobile devices! Added to this there are a variety of restrictions as well as an approval process to go through before an application is published. Apple maintains full control over the applications we use and the methods used to develop them, if the app were to prevail it could stem true web censorship! Mobile software companies will make the decisions as to what they feel is suitable for their brand and its users. Dare I say it but evidence of this can be found by the pure lack of ‘adult content’ applications in the App Store… Not that I would download one, but surely one of the biggest industries should have a presence in the world’s largest mobile application store? In fact, Apple originally blocked 3rd party MMS applications as they refused to support MMS on their native OS 1 and 2. Clever developers got around this by building mobile sites that looked and functioned like applications and allowed its users to send media messages via the ‘virtual’ online app.
I don’t see online business app’s being the future, not in the form of the App Store anyway. I see the future being sites and ‘virtual’ applications that are open to all mobile devices. I think the sheer ‘coolness’ of an iPhone App has pushed online businesses into rushing out applications. This urgent need for an iPhone App has stolen the focus from offering a service that can be used by the entire mobile market. Surely time would have been better spent building a truly mobile site which is supported by pretty much all devices? As far as the user is concerned an iPhone mobile site can function and look exactly the same as an application, even down to the icon saved on their home screen, so usability is not an issue here.
Effectively the code used to develop mobile sites is the same code we have been using to develop websites for years, so unlike the iPhone App, here exists a common codebase that can serve all makes and models and best of all no new skills have to be learned to develop them. The iPhone is by far the most popular mobile device being used to surf the web, this is no doubt down to its ingenious browser and hardware that is great at adapting to sites built for desktops. Surely if all online businesses provided a website that offers a great user experience on any device, then mobile browsing would spread beyond the iPhone and as a result reach a far greater audience.
Another problem with the iPhone App is how limited it is when it comes to app discovery, as app production increases this will only get worse, unless your app is in the top 50 of its category its unlikely to be found unless the user knows what to search for. It’s safe to say that the majority of new users brought to your business are likely to come from a search engine and not the App Store. It’s also likely that the user will be unaware when visiting your site that you have an application available, even if they do, they will need to close their browser, open the App Store, search for the application, download it, then launch it…. That’s only if the user has an iPhone and a 3g or WiFi signal. Surely it would be better to instantly present the user with a site optimized for their device without the need to discover your app and install it.
Is there a place for the App?
Don’t get me wrong; there is definitely a place for Apps. Gaming is a huge industry and currently it fits in very well with the app market. I own an iPhone and have downloaded over 100 applications, most of which are either tools or games, so I am definitely a fan! However, I cannot see the app being a long term success for traditional online businesses.
What should I do?
For immediate impact and some short term PR an iPhone App may be a good idea, however my advice would be to spend time making your website truly browser friendly for all mobile devices. Another thing to consider, which I will expand on in my next Blogg, is a public API. By opening up an API you give 3rd party developers the opportunity to build apps around your site, this is often the case for apps that aggregate content from a variety of websites, 3rd party developers tend to develop these apps at their own expense as they can profit from app sales. Although a 3rd party will be handling your data, you can control your brand and its use with a strict set of guidelines. A company that does this very well is last.fm. Just be aware, if the 3rd party app links back to your website, you wont want to disappoint your potential customer by not having a site optimised for their mobile.
If your direct target market is not necessarily an iPhone user, then develop your mobile site before you develop the app. A mobile site will give you access to a far greater user base and in the long-term will serve as a better investment.
So, what could the future hold?
With adobe flash CS5 coming out in a few weeks time, we will see a huge rise in iPhone App production. The new Flash platform will allow developers to easily build iPhone Apps using code most already know, so if you think the App Store is saturated now, then prepare yourself for a complete app overload! This overload will only make it harder for your app to be discovered, unless of course search engines decide to index applications. (Not sure Google would support this as it would effectively compete with their android platform)
However, the app as we know it may not be around for long. If cloud computing is the future then locally stored applications will be a thing of the past. Our desktops and mobile devices will just be a browser, software will be accessed via the web and content will be truly accessible by all, regardless of the make and model of the device being used.