The Future of Mobile Apps for Practicality

My mind has been on the mobile market lately for several reasons. First and foremost, I believe that the web and mobile markets offer the most exciting area of technical growth out there for consumers as well as shapers of the technical marketplace; I realize I’m far from alone in thinking this. Web commerce, web traffic, smart phone market share, mobile app sales keep rising and are trending up for the foreseeable future (I’m grouping tablets like the iPad with mobile). Second, the mobile need is now touching me personally with my latest project that has a mobile phase planned after the initial web release, this excites me to no end. If and when this project gathers steam in the market I see the traditional website ending up as a marketing hub for generating new users and existing users doing views and the mobile market centered on growth of the content that will make or break this project. Lastly, it just keeps slapping me in the face. Yesterday I read this: Reporter’s Notebook: Entrepreneurs Debate Death of Apps – WSJ.com. Last week I attended a jamSession on HTML5 with other devjammers which opened up some excellent conversations. And the week before that I took in the two day iPhone and Objective-C training session at The Nerdery to help gather my mobile strategy (thanks for the sessions, they were excellent).

I’ve been a smartphone owner since the Handspring Treo days of 2002 (when my phone was referred to as a gameboy and I was asked if it sent faxes) and I’ve done the normal progression to Windows Mobile, then to a Blackberry before settling in on being an Apple fanboy. Although the design and feel of the Treo isn’t compelling today at the time it was truly breathtaking. Remember these were the days when folks carried their Palm and phones and each were the size of your shoe and guys walked around with the holsters for each device looking like geeky Urkel cowboys. I was immediately captured by the potential for the mobile market and all that a monochrome screen with slow web browsing speeds could offer. Back then I was the lead developer at a local high flying (at least I thought so) web consulting shop and my job description included assessment and exploration of new technologies and soon I’d added WML capabilities to the CMS server. The first site I integrated it with was a client who sells printing systems that swell greater than a room or two and go for $600K and up…because nothing closes a sale on a massive printer like reading marketing content with your mobile phone!

As will.i.am would say “It’s a new day” and has been for a while when compared to the days of WML. So you have a new application to release to the world, you need the mobile functionality, what do you do?

Here are some options:

  1. You build your website, build out the components into services and then build a mobile app for your target demographic. In 2008 that was the iPhone through the iPhone app store and hiring or learning objective-c. Today though you need to cover the iPad, android phones and tablets, and perhaps a Blackberry app (ack!). But then there is still folks like my buddy who has the Palm Pre and the recent Windows Mobile7 rollout which is coming late to the game but has some major $$backing.

    Pros: Native apps for each device will offer the best performance and experience and you can leverage the full power of the device.

    Cons: Hold on…I’m counting…for sure you have 2 new apps to build and SUPPORT and it could be 6. So the growth of your business is focused on how well your team can ramp and learn wide varying technologies like Java, Obj-C, .Net, and whatever blackberry is written in. I hope you have funding! In addition, you are tracking the release cycles for iPhones, iPads, androids and the support of those features by the manufacturers. I need to ask you a question. Isn’t this why you went to web development in the first place? Remember the days of supporting desktop apps and the customer support issues? I ask, doesn’t this model look familiar?

  2. You use a toolkit. So you build your app in a tool and it will essentially compile what you want into applications for the various platforms. Sounds awesome and you can control the costs.

    Pros: You can budget, you don’t have to track the tech that isn’t core to your business.

    Cons: What if an appstore decides to ban the toolkit (like Apple did last year). Oh, and do you really think this works well for anything other than a marketing app? I truly don’t know but it seems too magical to me and I wouldn’t want to leverage my business to “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble”.

  3. You write HTML5 ports of your site for mobile browsers.

    Pros: You keep your codebase together. Changes are easier to control and release and you have better platform independence (although viewing options will change on the varying devices).

    Cons: Is HTML5 real? Do you code to today or the potential standard or follow the leaders like Apple and Google? Are you HTML5 capable with your dev team? Will you get the deep functionality? How do you take a picture and upload it (seriously, how)?

  4. You use a toolkit that kicks out HTML5. Like a merge of option 2 & 3.

    Pros: Could be the cheapest option and easiest out of the box

    Cons: You are still tied to a toolkit that is now kicking out widgets or something similar.

The choice obviously depends on your product and current situation. Take option 1 (writing your own apps), this strategy has been taken by Evernote to great success. Their model, in my estimation, is to make Evernote ubiquitous by bringing a compelling experience to every platform you use. The more you use the more you drive ad revenue or potentially pay for the product. But then you have to counter with FaceBook and their commitment to HTML5 and preparation to focus less on custom app development. Much like following the lead of Amazon in the early days of commerce, if it works for FaceBook it should work for you. (By the way FaceBook, I’ve been considering a west coast move. Wanna grab coffee? Reach me at @jacobhackl)

My take is heavy on option 3 with a slight brushing on option 4 but much of that is staked at where and WHEN you think HTML5 can support your mobile business. For now, I’m done focusing on Obective-C, I’m not going to write that custom WPF app for Windows7 mobile, android development will have to wait too. Less noise is needed. Let’s focus on the business, the core technology, and a transition to HTML5. One would hope that with more voices speaking on breaking away from apps that the movement can happen that much sooner.

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