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29 January 2010

A strategy for mobile app development

Filed under: Agile, applications, consulting, fragmentation, mashup* event, mobile web — David Wood @ 12:15 am

The mashup* event in London’s Canary Wharf district yesterday evening – hosted by Ogilvy – addressed the question,

  • Apps: What’s your strategy?

The meeting was described as follows:

This event will help people in strategic marcomms roles understand the key challenges with respect to apps and identify the building blocks of an app strategy:

  • What are the platform choices?
  • What are the app store choices?
  • What devices should you support? …

mashup* is bringing together several industry experts and specialist developers to help demystify, clarify and explain the issues around the rapidly emerging Apps channel…

The event was sold out, and the room was packed.  I didn’t hear anyone question the need for companies to have a mobile strategy.  Nowadays, that seems to be taken for granted.  The hard bit is to work out what the strategy should be.

One of the speakers, Charles Weir of Penrillian, gave a stark assessment of the difficulty in writing mobile apps:

  • For wide coverage of different devices, several different programming systems need to be used – apart from those (relatively few) cases where the functionality of the app can be delivered via web technology;
  • Rather than the number of different mobile platforms decreasing, the number is actually increasing: fragmentation is getting worse;
  • Examples of relatively new mobile platforms include Samsung’s bada and Nokia’s Maemo.

One mobile strategy is to focus on just one platform – such as the Apple iPhone.  Another strategy is to prioritise web-based delivery – as followed by another speaker, Mark Curtis, for the highly-successful Flirtomatic app.  But these restrictions may be unacceptable to companies who:

  • Want to reach a larger number of users (who use different devices);
  • Want to include richer functionality in their app than can be delivered via standard mobile browsers.

So what are the alternatives?

If anything, the development situation is even more complex than Charles described it:

  • Mobile web browsing suffers from its own fragmentation – with different versions of web browsers being used on different devices, and with different widget extensions;
  • Individual mobile platforms can have multiple UI families;
  • Different versions of a single mobile platform may be incompatible with each other

The mobile industry is aware of these problems, and is pursing solutions on multiple fronts – including improved developer tools, improved intermediate platforms, and improved management of compatibility.  For example, there is considerable hope that HTML 5.0 will be widely adopted as a standard.  However, at the same time as solutions are found, new incompatibilities arise too – typically for new areas of mobile functionality.

The suggestion I raised from the floor during the meeting is that companies ought in general to avoid squaring up to this fragmentation.  Instead, they should engage partners who specialise in handling this fragmentation on behalf of clients.  Fragmentation is a hard problem, which won’t disappear any time soon.  Worse, as I said, the nature of the fragmentation changes fairly rapidly.  So let this problem be handled by expert mobile professional services companies.

This can be viewed as a kind of “mobile apps as a service”.

These professional services companies could provide, not only the technical solutions for a number of platforms, but also up-to-date impartial advice on which platforms ought to be prioritised.  Happily, the number of these mobile-savvy professional services companies (both large and small) is continuing to grow.

My suggestion received broad general support from the panel of speakers, but with one important twist.  Being a big fan of agile development, I fully accept this twist:

  • The specification of successful applications is rarely fixed in advance;
  • Instead, it ought to evolve in the light of users’ experience with early releases;
  • The specification will therefore improve as the project unfolds.

This strongly argues against any hands-off outsourcing of mobile app development to the professional services company.  Instead, the professional services company should operate in close conjunction with the domain experts in the original company.  That’s a mobile application strategy that makes good sense.

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2 Comments »

  1. You might be interested in my new blog on mobility: http://entmobility.blogspot.com/2010/01/are-enterprises-adopting-mobile.html

    Comment by Vivek Mannige — 29 January 2010 @ 9:34 am

    • Hi Vivek,

      The experience you report is interesting: many enterprises express an interest in mobile solutions, but after some time, they still “did not know where or how to begin”.

      This reinforces the point I was making in the blog: there’s a business need for professional services companies who can provide “mobile apps as a service”.

      Comment by David Wood — 29 January 2010 @ 11:05 am


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