Recently many of our clients have said “We need to go mobile.” They want a mobile site, or a mobile app or something specifically for the iPhone or Android. Most clients don’t know exactly what they want or need, but they are aware of the increasing use of smart phones and similar technologies, and they are right to be anxious to get onboard. Gartner Research predicts that by 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web access device worldwide.
Trends in Internet Access
The above chart from SmartOnline clearly illustrates that companies should indeed be addressing the increasing use of mobile technology, but there are many factors to be considered. First, anyone who is planning to enter the mobile arena should understand that there are two completely different types of mobile technologies that may provide solutions: 1) mobile applications, and 2) mobile websites.
They are two completely different animals, and they should not be confused with one another. Each has a distinct purpose and its own unique issues that must be considered. Here we’ll take a look at mobile applications, but check back soon for the low-down on mobile websites!
Mobile applications are small computer programs that run on a mobile device. Sometimes that program may run entirely on the phone; other times part of the program may run on the phone and that, in turn, may interface with another program that runs on the web.
For example, a game like Tetris runs entirely on the phone – you download it and play. But an application for weather reports would run partly on the phone and partly on the web. The application uses the GPS (running on the phone) to identify your location, then accesses another program (running on the web) to get the current weather and forecasts for that location. This information is then displayed by the program running on the phone. The result is a customized weather report tailored for the actual location of the user.
Mobile applications must be manually downloaded and installed on the phone, much like installing software on a desktop computer. While mobile applications vary greatly in purpose and type, all good mobile applications have certain traits: 1) they run interactively on the users’ phone, 2) they are designed for a specific narrow purpose and 3) they are meant to be used again and again by the same person.
If an application doesn’t meet all three criteria, it probably will not succeed.
Here’s an example: A regional company that delivers pizza from many locations thought it would be a good idea to create an app that allowed users to download its menu. The goal was to increase orders, assuming that users would have the menu on the phone and would call in to place on order. The company spent a lot of money to get a cool design that displayed its menu on the phone. To their shock, it did not work – very few people downloaded the app.
That application failed two of the three criteria: it did not run interactively and was not really something that would be used again and again. A user might want to see a menu once or maybe even a few times, but not with great frequency. One of the problems with this approach was that they confused what should be a web function with an app. Most people who want to see a menu simply look it up on the website using their browser.
Here’s the app they should have developed:
I want pizza now!
This application would indeed bring up the menu, but it would also be interactive. Imagine this:
- The users starts the app.
- They select “Build My Pizza” and choose the size and toppings.
- They press “Pizza Me Now.”
- The app uses the GPS to identify the user’s location and find the closest delivery location.
- The order is placed; the app automatically sends the order, the phone number of the person ordering and the delivery location.
- The ravenous users get a pizza.
Now there’s an app that could have worked. It accomplishes a task interactively, it serves a specific purpose and it would be used again and again (I suspect most frequently on Friday and Saturday nights). Like many apps, this application uses many of the functions built into the phones hardware (i.e., GPS, internet and cellular functions). This is not an absolute requirement of an app, but it is a common feature of many.
If you’re looking to develop an app for your company, be sure it meets all the criteria. If you can’t think of a useful app for your business that meets the criteria, an app may not be right for you. A mobile website may be what you need.
Never develop an app for the sake of having an app. Develop an app only when it performs a function, solves a problem or enhances the users’ experience.
Mobile Applications: Technology Considerations
One of the major drawbacks to developing a mobile app is the fact that there are so many platforms and operating systems running on the various phones, and each operating system requires an app that’s developed for that specific system. Apps made for the iPhone won’t run on the Android; an app made for the Android won’t run on a Blackberry, etc.
What does this mean? It means you are either going to limit yourself to one small segment of the marketplace based on the hardware you decide to support, or you are going to spend much more money to develop and deploy multiple versions of your application.
Palm Pilots and BlackBerrys were the first generation of smart phone, but it was the release of the iPhone in 2007 that really started the explosion of apps. And initially, the iPhone had the lions’ share of users and was the primary focus of developers. As the iPhone app market has become more saturated and new phones have been released, the focus of developers is shifting to other devices.
In the charts below from ReadWrite you can see that even last year one third of application development was still focused on the iPhone, but in 2011 that trend is expected to shift heavily towards the Android operating system and the newly released Windows Phone. I suspect while some of this effort will be the development of new apps, much of that time will be spent redeploying apps that were built for the iPhone on alternative devices.
Application Development Trends
The bottom line of all this is that while an app may sound like a good idea, the commitment and resources you’ll need to devote to it should not be taken lightly. There are likely to be (at least) four platforms you’ll need to seriously consider supporting: 1) iPhone; 2) Android; 3) Windows Phone; and 4) Blackberry. Essentially this means you are going to need four or more versions of each app you develop. While the overall design of an app may be similar, each platform will require its own development and debugging cycle and each will require a separate product release.
If you have a need for an app, and that app meets the criteria previously mentioned, then by all means, develop it. Just be sure you understand the commitment you are undertaking to support so many platforms, or the limitations you’ll be living with if you choose to support fewer platforms. Also, be sure you don’t try to create an app for a purpose that is best suited to a mobile website. Check back soon for more information about mobile sites!