Don't be silly with your mobile platform wishlist

You want your app to work across every mobile device and platform ever conceived? Don’t be silly…

When a brief for a new mobile project comes across my desk it almost always demands that the finished application is to work across every mobile device and platform ever conceived.

This is an extract from a tender document that I received from a U.K. University recently.

The service should provide, as a minimum, support for all major smartphone platforms including:

  • Apple iOS 3.x, 4.x and 5.x.
  • Android 2.x, 3.x and 4.x.
  • Blackberry 4.x, 5.x and 6.x.
  • Windows Mobile 5.x, 6.x, 7.x.

This is a fairly typical request and, to be honest, it’s just a little bit silly.

Without going into the details of why this specific list is not worth taking seriously I’ll just point out that some of these platforms are no longer in circulation, some never allowed 3rd party apps, and of those that do some no longer have app stores servicing them. And before somebody says; “the solution here is a web app”, the volume and quality of the browsers available on some of these platforms makes that a non starter.

What this list highlights is that there is clearly a lack of understanding, on the part of the client, surrounding the medium for which they are commissioning a project. This is not uncommon. Many would be mobile project managers have previously run web projects and tend to treat mobile platforms in the same way that they have considered web browsers in the past. This is clearly wrong. However, having said that, you can see the logic. Everybody wants their app to be accessible to as many people as possible.

False economies

When consumer reach is a major goal in a development project the default position that many people take is to develop a web or hybrid app. This will give you a cross platform solution for a fraction of the cost of a multiple native app development project; although it still won’t cover all of the platforms in our tender request above. I’ve already discussed why this position is often the wrong approach and laid out some scenarios where web technology is useful so I won’t go over that again here. But I will say that while providing your service to the largest possible audience is an admirable goal this is a very lazy way of going about it.

This approach is akin to old school tuna fishing. The idea is that if you throw out a big enough net you will catch a lot of tuna. However, the problem is that you will also catch a whole bunch of other fish, dolphins, and shopping trollies along the way. By trying to make your service available on all platform and device combinations you will end up servicing technology that your customers do not use. This is a waste of resources.

Do your research

Instead, find out which platforms your customers are using and what their behaviour is on these platforms. For example, generally speaking, Apple users are far and away much heavier consumers of apps. On the other hand, Android users, while not using apps, are consistent users of their mobile web browser.

Remembering that even cross platform solutions need specific platform optimisation is important. This optimisation takes effort. If you know that your user base are not Apple users then building a web based solution for users on Android and Blackberry or Windows, for example, could mean that you do not need to spend resources on optimising for Apple devices.

By knowing your users and understanding their behaviour you can effectively target the correct platforms and thus spending your development resource in the right place. Ultimately this will lead you to a better solution than a “must work on everything”; catch all approach. Just demanding that your new service is available on every mobile platform on the market is not the right approach. You will spend a lot of resource that you do not need to and, if done correctly in each instance, is massively wasteful.

  • http://twitter.com/brad_frost Brad Frost

    I personally think it’s fantastic that a request came through that is attempting to reach as many smartphone platforms as possible. Most briefs read something along the lines of “ME LIKE IPHONE, MAKE WORK ON IPHONE and that’s about it. A bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not too far from the truth.

    There are lots of opportunities to create great experiences for specific mobile platforms and there’s plenty of room for web, native, hybrid, and whatever solutions. (http://bradfrostweb.com/blog/notes/native-vs-web-is-total-bullshit/). But when it comes to the web, it’s important to encourage and embrace its inherent inclusiveness. Stephanie Rieger beautifully stated “Diversity is not a bug…it’s an opportunity.” (http://stephanierieger.com/diversity-is-not-a-bug/), and to capitalize on this is good for users, good for business, and good for the web.

    Now back to reality. The fact of the matter is that there’s no possible way to test on every device, platform and configuration on the planet. That’s why it’s important to understand the difference between ‘support’ and ‘optimization’ (http://bradfrostweb.com/blog/mobile/support-vs-optimization/). It’s our job to educate clients and team members that we can optimize for the platforms that make the most sense for particular project, while simultaneously providing support to the myriad of other connected devices both present and future. So while it might not make sense to make sense to bend over backwards for Blackberry 4.2 users in 2012, those users should still be able to be able to access one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.hobbs.9235 Joe Hobbs

    The Web increasingly demands more effort we update us, getting faster and radical. I try to always update me a story in web design and programming, but the truth often does not reach me with just my two eyes and my hands. I am also very involved with HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery, I think that these three things you can do great things and we make it very easy. But the problem is that not until cuendo, I could wake up tomorrow and could have changed everything.
    Regards,
    Joe Hobbs – Recetas Faciles

  • Guest

    Is it on? Do comments work?

    • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

      Yes, yes they do. :)

  • http://www.dootrix.com Rob Borley

    Hi Brad,

    I do not disagree with your sentiment but the cold hard fact is that this coverage is often prohibitively expensive. A compromise needs to made somewhere and a proper understanding of your audience will help to inform where that compromise is made.

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