Confused by the mobile web? Join the club.

Paul Boag

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.

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