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Which Way to Mobile?

Each of us at some point has been faced with a pivotal decision-making opportunity like that of Alice from Alice In Wonderland. We wanted direction, but we didn’t know where to go. Then in come the wise but cynical words of the Cheshire Cat, if we don’t know or care where we’re going, “then it really doesn’t matter which way you go.” Which leaves us asking ourselves, “Do I know where I’m going? Do I know where I want to go?”

Many businesses face a similar challenge as it relates to approaching mobile and what will be best for their needs. They get attached to the idea of a mobile solution, but they don’t have a complete understanding of what it entails, what technology infrastructure is required or how hard or easy it will be to create and support.

Some assume the only way to go mobile is through a native mobile app, and because of this shy away from mobile altogether, thinking they don’t have the right internal resources to support an app. A lack of enterprise device standards (BYOD), minimal IT support, antiquated systems or budget constraints can too often lead to the words, “We’re not ready to build an app.” But truthfully, there are different types of applications out there with different technology requirements; and you don’t always need a native app to go mobile, mobile solutions can take on many different forms.

Let’s take a look at some different types of applications, as well as alternatives to mobile apps that are worth considering as you approach a new mobile solution.

Web Applications When content is ever changing and needs to reach across multiple devices, and building and supporting a native app or native app components (hybrid app) is not possible, web apps are a great option. A web-based application functions like a mobile app, but streams content like a website. All of the content is dynamic, but it adapts to give the user a great experience on a mobile device. Perhaps you have a current web-based desktop solution that you would like to convert into an engaging mobile experience. This could be the place to start.

Pros - Ability to develop for multiple platforms/devices using a single code base - Ubiquitous distribution - All functionality, resources and logic are on a Web server, making updates instantaneous and immediately available to users - Reach mobile and non-mobile audience - “Findability” – Easier to search for compared to app store distribution - Ability to utilize application offline (with limitations) – HTML5 API’s are allowing access to more device specific features, (gyroscope, camera, file system, etc.)

Cons - Fragmentation between browsers – Browsers often implement features differently, causing some limitations when striving for same functionality across different browsers - Most content requires Internet connection - Animations and transitions can be sluggish on older/cheaper mobile devices - Mobile application structure makes some desktop web applications very hard to translate into a mobile app without completely changing information flow

You can learn more about web applications in Maestro’s whitepaper, “HTML5 Or Native," which explores differences and opportunities for mobile development within HTML5 and native coding, as well as hybrid approaches.

Hybrid Mobile Applications A hybrid mobile app takes qualities from both native mobile apps and web-based solutions to create a powerful user experience. When app functionality requires highly intricate features and interaction that HTML5 cannot provide, we think native. When the solution needs to stream large amounts of content, we think web-based.  When we need both, hybrid becomes an option. In a hybrid app specific features and functionality are built using native code unique to each required device (i.e. Objective C for iOS or Java for Android). Then device agnostic content can be laid on top of those features, typically streaming from a content management solution.

Pros - Able to access many native app features through Javascript - No Internet connection required to view content - Can often use existing code base for web-based components of app (no need to reprogram)

Cons - Viewing web content within an app is slower than viewing in native web browsers – animations/transitions can be slower too - Some native code does not work in web formats, so extra code must be written for each platform/device - Can be costly to build the same feature multiple times for different devices

Responsive Website Now when you hear the word website in a discussion about mobile devices, is the thought of incessant pinching and zooming the first thing that comes to mind? If it is, then relax, this is not that. In fact, responsive web design is very much the opposite.

The theory in designing and building a website responsively is that the components of the site (text, menu, images, videos, links, etc.) will respond to the environment and platform through which they are delivered. Rather than shrinking everything on the page so that the user needs a microscope to view on a smartphone, responsive design hides, minimizes and stacks components in a fluid motion so that the viewer still has a positive experience, regardless of screen size. 

This solution is quite powerful when it comes to the idea of designing once and delivering across both desktop and the myriad of mobile tablets and smartphones. Whether at a desk on a computer or in a store on smartphone, the user has a seamless experience, no pinching or zooming required.

Try It Out! Maestro’s website has actually been designed responsively. Here’s an activity. If you’re viewing this blog post from a desktop computer, grab the bottom right corner of your web browser window with your mouse. Then move the mouse progressively to the top left corner of your screen, and notice how the content of the website adapts. See Maestro’s logo and the menu on the top of the screen change to a small logo and a hidden menu. Notice how the list of latest blog posts and the invitation to “Follow Along” on the right side of the screen actually get pushed to the bottom or the page. Each piece of content adapts to the amount of screen real estate it has to work within.

Pros - Design and build once, deliver across any device - Content adapts to device screen size for optimal viewing/user experience - Managed with a content management system like other websites and dynamic mobile apps

Cons - Requires Internet connection on mobile devices - Lacks breadth of feature functionality that native app components have

Check out the rest of Maestro’s responsive website as well as a few other examples like Microsoft and Starbucks.

ePubs ePublicatons like Apple iBooks and Amazon and Google eBooks provide users with a learning experience that is far more engaging than an paperback. And with features like embedded videos, interactive graphics, quizzes and incredible notes and archiving tools it can hardly be considered a book.

And the audience is growing. At the end of 2012, 1 in 3 Americans had an eReader or Tablet that could view ePubs.

Pros - Distribution from a mobile friendly LMS - Development is less costly than a native app when using a template ePub format - Develop ePub series to educate on a variety of subjects (Ie. create a library of publications on different topics in a course) - Build as ePub, print as PDF

Cons - Some formats are device specific (i.e., Apple iBooks) - Limited control of updates after publishing - Difficult to track use and engagement

To see an engaging ePub in action, check out these iBooks, available for free in iTunes:

The Road To Civil Rights - NASA – Mysteries Of The Sun

With mobile devices continually on the rise – 6.8 billion mobile subscriptions expected by end of 2013 – the need for businesses to consider mobile tools and information solutions will only increase. Like Alice, it’s important for each company to know where they want to go with mobile so they can start down the right path. But unfortunately there isn’t always a Cheshire Cat around to help us realize that we need a clear direction. Consider the options outlined here as potential destinations for your mobile solution, remembering that mobile does not have to mean native. Compare the options to your ideas and study them against your users’ needs. Then take time to ask yourself and your business the pivotal question, “Where do we want to go?”


Pew Internet

ITU - ICT Data and Statistics Division

Tagg Petersen

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