To app or not to app – The future of designing for the ‘Mobile Web’

~Article as originally posted on the digitaldesign.co.uk 20/07/2010

The number of users browsing the Web from a mobile device continues to rise, yet most web developers still don’t design versions of sites targetted specifically for devices such as the iPhone,Blackberry, or other smartphones. to offering a pure service approach based on perfect competition rather than monopolisitc markets.

The reason? There remain a number of pitfalls and stumbling blocks to overcome during the development of a successful mobile site (not least of which the large additional cost against a potentially small number of users), however in spite of this, creating a great web experience for users of mobile devices, either via a website or mobile app can be a great way of providing enhanced functionality that can be accessed from anywhere, at anytime

This article will introduce a number of factors that will need to be considered and discusses current trends in mobile internet usage.

Two of the most popular mobile devices –  Android and the iPhone have their own application ‘markets’. Of lesser popularity, but equal potential, Ovi, Windows 7 Mobile and WebOS also offer viable and steadily growing communities.

The success of applications (vs websites) has been partly a result of webmasters not providing  usable mobile alternatives and partly a mobile web that even now is  driven by handset manufacturers  encouraging users to commit to using their proprietary software for the duration of their contract by dangling a high profile software/handset combination as the carrot.

The clamour for Ubiquitous web-based communities such as Facebook and Twitter have driven a range of official and unofficial applications on every platform.

Application vs Website

Though app development provides greater potential for functionality, server side processing and custom user interface (UI) design there will likely be a developer rebuttal against the version fragmentation, segregation and seperation of app formats. The volume and success of key players such as Apple, Palm, Nokia, Microsoft, RIM, and Android show that  it’s still all about the apps right now – whether for augmented reality, online payments or interactive music streaming.

I believe we’re on the cusp of an m2.0 movement where mobile web technology catches up with OS capability, allowing webmasters and software developers to provide rich user experiences via a mobile web standard.

Not only will app developers have platform upgrades, handset obsoletion, and restrictive business practises to deal with, they will also increasingly have to  contend with differentiating themselvesin an increasingly crowded app marketplace.

Each ‘App store’ model frequently looks for different relationships with technologies like flash and java and may even insist on controlling fundamentals like programming languages. This means that making applications that  can be used across different devices a significant undertaking with equally significant associated costs.

A fragmentation tipping point where its no longer economically viable to maintain multiple mobile versions will be reached. In fact 90% of developers already focus on one mobile platform.

Much like the rush towards a standardised PC, Smartphone software developers will look for, nay demand, common standards. In this case, those common standards already exist in theory – the mobile web.

With that in mind, long-term  investment in providng an effective mobile web presence may turn out to be the best strategy. Im not alone in believing that in any new arrangement platform neutrality will be key

What are some of the considerations for developers of mobile-friendly websites?

Know Your device

Just like the newest generation of widescreen tvs challenged broadcasters in positioning onscreen content like logos and news tickers, mobile web providers are beginning to feel the pain of dealing with a wide assortment of  operating systems, browser software, screen resolutions dimensions and input methods.

Ubiquitous computing is already a reality,  – Android OS is already available in tvs, fridges and cars. However, each has different ways of interacting – touch, keyboards, trackballs, and voice and stylus are just a few of the varying requirements.

Businesses and organisations – and even web developers – still have some way to go in understanding the convergence of phones, PCs, laptops, subnotebooks, eReaders and tablets and what it means for the way information and experience is delivered over the web.

Who is the audience?

Having a clear understanding of the needs of the audience is vital. What functions and facilities best lend themselves to mobilising? Is all content equally valuable when accessed through a PC and Mobile interface? Audience is a key factor and n the mobile user often has  different priorities in terms of what they want to access. Presentaton and functionality are of paramount importance, for instance, you wouldnt put the most useful content/menus at the bottom of a page or buried within many pages, if users are reaching those pages with a mobile phone’s track ball.

Don’t Mix Up Your Markup

A few different types of markup are available for building a mobile web site. You’ll need to choose one that suits the needs of your users and stick with it.

WML

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was the only way to ‘surf’ in the early days of mobile web. That said, to call it surfing is probabaly being over generous. WAP, useing Wireless Markup Language (WML) XML markup language tends to provide a rather low and broadly ugly user experience- remember Information rather than presentation is key here.

WML is now mostly used by legacy systems or by sites that explicitly target customers with low-end phones. For instance, there are potentially massive numbers of users in developing nations using extremely cheap Nokia handsets. The screens were small, the input method extremely frustrating, the rendering slow and the networks uber slow – it does however offer internet access.

XHTML

For most sites, we can ignore WML and make use of a markup language with which you’re probably much more familiar — XHTML.

Most built-in phone browsers these days can handle XHTML just fine. A mobile phone recognizes two flavors of HTML either XHTML or XHTML- Mobile Profile (MP)

Conclusion

If you’ve got an idea and are deliberating whether to go down the app or the web route, then here’s my broad brush advice. If it needs fast graphics, audio processing, access to the camera or interaction with the address book, you most likely need an application. For most ideas, however, there is no need to develop an app.  Developing apps can leave suppliers open to a number of unforseen circumstances such as political platform changes.

Modern mobile browsers are constantly improving and allow local data storage, geolocation access, full Web standards support and multitouch user interfaces.  As such, m2.0 will likely be app’less but unlikely to be apple’less.

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