The Kernel’s head of product explains what needs to happen in the next stages of the mobile internet’s development.
Here’s what we already know: mobile has been growing at a phenomenal rate. After experts spent years declaring “the year of the mobile”, I think we can safely say it’s actually here. Without looking at the figures, you only have to look around on the way to work to see a whole army of adopters plugged in to the internet via their handheld device. Oh, and ONE BILLION DOLLARS.
Now, the war-ground: app or web. Of course, for most, it’s not an either-or decision – we merely consume – but for those who must choose how they to monetise the next phase of their enterprise it’s an important distinction. This war has been playing out since Apple released the first version of their revolutionary iPhone. (It wasn’t first in class, but few would argue it hasn’t had the most impact on any industry you care to mention.)
After the landmark Facebook deal last week, in which the company acquired photo sharing app Instagram, the bi-monthly argument of where a company should be laying down their chips in this new economy is being brought into sharper focus. You may have heard some of the arguments before.
The future of mobile is apps, one side says, as only apps can deliver the experience consumers demand, while providing a clear route to monetisation. The web is here to stay, others will mutter; apps are just a trendy manifestation of what the web already provides, and all trends die.
In the meantime, we all continue to consume as we see fit. Both methods are here to stay. Neither will ever deliver the death blow, so companies need to plan for both. But what do we need to see happen to ensure both mediums live up to their potential? This is an important question because manufacturers want to make this choice for us, and, if they do, we potentially all lose.
Apps have it easy. They afford the luxury of access to hardware services and acceleration that the humble browser can only borrow, like a poor disfranchised soul begging for change. This access leads to the experiences we have come to love, which sometimes transcend even those on the PC or laptop.
Need immediate access to your location, camera or address book? The app-driven product can dip into these resources at any time with little restriction and deliver seamless services as a result. So, what’s the problem?
For most companies, the price of this entitlement runs high. Skyrocketing development cost based on a lack of qualified application developers. Time consuming projects: you only get one chance to release a world-changing app, so you need to combine uncomfortable cousins, innovation and perfection.
Cross-development, as you will likely repackage any efforts across to the growing Android platform, at the least. Even unforeseen costs such as the time taken to adhere to Apple’s rather stringent design policies and UX principles. All take their toll.
Meanwhile, the web continues to deliver, with all the advantages it had in the past. Cross-platform compatibility (or at least the possibility of it, as standards continue to fly loose in the browser wars). Straightforward access to a kaleidoscope of online web services, making it easier to provide a bridge between the mobile user and the services they already consume elsewhere.
Direct connections between your existing web product and your mobile offering (sometimes they are one and the same through practices such as responsive design).
But, of course, we can come up with an equally long list of disadvantages. Mobile sites tend to lack the bling factor of the app alternatives thanks to their lack of access to graphics acceleration and slightly outdated CSS techniques.
They are typically slower as every page is retrieved via an unreliable mobile network, and we web developers have become reliant on various libraries such as jQuery that increase the shiny quotient but typically hurt responsiveness. Access to native features, most notably the phone’s media, restrict potential use cases, and for many companies totally rule out web as being a viable single-choice for their products.
I could spend all day going over these tit for tats but I would be focusing on the wrong battles, because we’re all fighting the wrong war. Neither environment is ideal for what we as businesses need to succeed in our respective marketplaces.
What should we be fighting for? On the web, various camps have been striving to reach some sort of middle ground through the advancement of the HTML5 protocol. Within HTML5 there are various bridges between the native features listed above and the browser.
But, it’s been slow progress. Google and Apple have been pitching their own battles within this field to ensure their respective app offerings win over. Ever wonder why you can’t upload an attachment on mobile Safari? It would hurt their native offerings.
On the native app side we should be striving for better tools. Objective-C, in true Apple style, is entirely proprietary. If Apple demanded that every second line of code stated that “You write code for us, you are Apple’s bitch”, developers would have to comply.
Android doesn’t fare much better of course, but at least the foundations are in Java which provides some hope of portability. In Blackberry’s latest bunglings it is possible to port Android existing apps across to the Playbook tablet. This is progress, of sorts.
Of course many would argue that this is their platform, they can do with it as they wish. They want proprietary, who are we to say otherwise? Also, they make some of us very rich, don’t be such a bitch.
So we act like the dog, lying on our back hoping to be grudgingly rubbed on our tummies by the grubby boot of our corporate master in the hope of being highlighted on His marketplace.
The Web was “free”: we need to demand the same from our alternatives. Don’t be the dog. Be the fucking cat.