Confused by the mobile web? Join the club.

Unless you’ve been stuck under a rock for the past year or two, you’ll have noticed that mobile is reasonably big news.

The golden promise that has been lurking on the horizon for the past decade or so – an internet available from everywhere from a ubiquitous device that you carry with you – seems finally to be reality. The convergence of a number of factors has led to this perfect storm, among them network speed and availability, device capability, service provision and – possibly most importantly – an active marketing campaign by all the telco’s. The combination of all these factors has ensured mobile is at the top of many developer and consumer minds as we enter the first part of 2011.

Arcane iPhone development

At the forefront of all of this is of course the iPhone: the slickest, shiniest, most designed mobile in the world. The iPhone has clearly pushed the mobile agenda – if only because of trend, hype and gadget lust. Having said this, many developers understandably find iPhone development problematic. For a start, the language used to build native iPhone apps (Objective C) is arcane – this isn’t web-friendly script territory, this is flat food and ponytail stuff; couple that with the closed nature of the App Store, the expense of the device itself, the “we’ll have a third of your revenue, thanks” charging model put in place by Apple, and it is understandable that many are looking to other platforms to satiate their mobile development needs.

iOS Dev Center

Beyond the iPhone

Although Android is one obvious contender for the “most popular mobile operating system” crown (and many analysts predict a huge year for Android in 2011), smartphone OS sales are currently way more heavily represented by Nokia Symbian: during 2010, according to the TomiAhonen Phone Book 2010, Symbian represented a whopping 39% of smartphone sales. Android was at 21% and Apple iOS at a measly 15%, level with RIM Blackberry.

And then there is the mobile web

And if you thought all this was complicated, bear in mind that a huge amount of developer focus is often about “native” apps – those that are built for, and specifically run on these individual platforms. We haven’t talked about the mobile web – sites and apps built or modified for mobile device browsers. If you thought your work as a web developer was cut out for you trying to get IE6 to display a site correctly, consider that the mobile landscape is littered with literally hundreds of different browsers, screen sizes and capabilities on today’s internet-capable phones.

Web or native?

And herein lies the major conundrum being faced by many companies and developers. How do you go about making the decision between a richer native app which only hits a small segment of potential audience and a web app which can’t get at as many of the device API’s but could be viewed by anyone with a mobile which can see the web?

Companies like Phonegap, Appcelerator, Rhomobile and others seem to offer a kind of holy grail where you build your app with normal web skills using HTML, CSS and Javascript and then use their system to “translate” your service into a native app. You get most of the device capability, but can deploy to multiple platforms (and the web). Sounds good, but then you’ve got to choose which of those platforms to choose for your development….

Which is best? Well, it depends

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the answer to the question “which approach is best?” isn’t usually an easy “this one here: it does EVERYTHING!” but almost always “it depends on context”. Who is your audience? What do you want your app or mobile site to do? What does “success” look like?

Although it is hard to stomach, it looks very much like the world of mobile won’t flatten into a “winner” any time soon: this is a diverse environment which is changing all the time. The very best thing you can do as a developer or business owner is to stay on top of trends and understand your audience and the technologies available to you as best as you possibly can.

The Big M

This is one of the main reasons we’ve put together The Big M – we want to bring together developers, device manufacturers and business people and learn about some of these big questions. We’ll hear from some of the cleverest people in the industry today and find out what they’re doing with mobile, how they’re doing it – and why.

As BoagWorld readers, you can get a 15% discount off of The Big M by using the code BOAG when you book

About the author

Mike Ellis does a lot of thinking, talking and writing about the web. In March 2010, he’s helping to run a new independent conference about mobile called The Big M. You should come along – details (and a discount code!) at the end of this post.

If you recognise that the mobile web is important and you need help deciding on a strategy, then book a mobile consultancy clinic.

Book a consultancy clinic or contact Rob about a more in-depth review.

  • Mike, you’ve definitely identified the problem — not that it was hiding. I wrote a similar but, uh, longer post a few weeks ago encouraging traditional web developers to start exploring mobile strategies. It might be of interest:

    • Mike, I really enjoyed that article. I have been working on a mobile site for a client for quite some time now, and it has been quite a pain. I would love to attend the conference, but I live in America and can’t afford it. Is there any chance there will be live streams or coverage of the conference available for us yanks?

    • Nathan – cheers, your post is excellent. I’ll chuck out some tweets – I suspect lots of people might be interested in that..


    • @Jon / @AJ

      We’re probably not going to live-stream because of budget constraints but we might see if we can get some footage for people to watch after the event. We’re not 100% on this either, but keep an eye on or where we’ll be shouting about this if it happens


  • AJ King

    Thanks for the post, but as a Canadian, +1 for streams or at least slides of the UK event. Or better still . . . a North American event!


  • A good introduction Mike, food for thought for newcomers to the field and might help them make the right choices.

    Push me and I’d have to say the Mobile Web has the most to offer in the long term, but in a world that offers PhoneGap – and perhaps more importantly Layar – we may not have to choose. As browser functionality grows it becomes more of platform choice.

  • TIM

    We have definitely had to take mobile in mind in the last 6 months when designing sites. We’ve moved from flash to jquery and from flash drop down menus to DHTML or CSS to ensure they are viewed well on iphone and ipad devices as well as other smartphones.

  • Sijmen

    “Arcane IPhone Development […] For a start, the language used to build native iPhone apps (Objective C) is arcane”

    The author has no idea what he’s talking about. Objective-C is a modern, dynamic programming language that has been continuously improved upon in the past years. The iPhone SDK is head and shoulders above the expensive (looking at you, RIM) and/or flaky and incompatible (ahem, J2ME) platforms of the time. The same goes for Android and WM7, they’re fine platforms.

    “this isn’t web-friendly script territory, this is flat food and ponytail stuff”

    Ignoring the blatant rhetoric, is web app development “script territory” then? Was Google Docs written by a designer with some spare time chalking up some jQuery code in default.js? Writing a web app is just as hard as writing a native iPhone/Android/etc app.

    The author has no right to dismiss native development outright just because it lies outside his small comfort zone.

    “the expense of the device itself, the ‘we’ll have a third of your revenue, thanks’ charging model put in place by Apple, and it is understandable that many are looking to other platforms to satiate their mobile development needs.”

    What a load of rubbish. Would you develop a web app for smartphones without owning such a device? And would you rather grow a ponytail and build your own payment processing system? The App Store and equivalents provide developers with an unprecedented way to easily sell their apps.

    The only people I hear complain about the App Store, Marketplace etc fees (it’s not just Apple) are the people who aren’t actually into app development and don’t know what they’re talking about.

    To conclude, I’m not saying that web apps have no merit. Instead, with browser technology improving as quickly as it does, the future only looks all the more bright. But this article is not about web technology vs. native platforms – it’s about people afraid to think outside their comfort zone, afraid to learn anything that cannot be parsed by a web browser.

    • Thanks for your comment, @Sijmen – interesting to hear your perspectives.

      My “comfort zone” doesn’t even stretch to web development, to be frank – I’m a tinkerer rather than a hard-core geek – but I do think there is a fairly well-defined divide between those who think about things in a “web way” and those who don’t. I’m not a developer – if anything I’m a user advocate, a generalist who tries to understand how people can make sense of what is undoubtedly a complex environment.

      To be clear: I’m not casting any aspersions on either native or web development: if my experience of doing web stuff has taught me anything it is that the phrase “it depends on context” is probably the only “truth” to be had here…

  • When you are making your decisions re: device OS to support, the volume of handsets in the market does not provide an accurate view of mobile data usage. Whilst Symbian has, at the moment, the largest market share a review of our client sites showed that it generally represented only between 0.1-0.2% of their traffic, quite often out performed by the iPod. Our own view is that unless their is a significant amount of data that doesn’t need to be refreshed in real time e.g. a mapping application a browser based solution is cheaper, easier to manage and considerably more accessible.