Should You Have Mobile Web Designers?

12/15/2012 9:27:46 AM

Mobile is somewhat of a different ball game

Forrester Research ( predicts that 1 billion consumers world­wide will own smartphones by 2016. Of these, 350 million will be employees using their devices in a work-oriented capacity. It isn't surprising, then, that Forrester expects business spending on mobility to double by 2015.

Naturally, acknowledging the cor­responding rise in mobile Web usage, many companies want to take their ex­isting IT resources in conventional Web design and throw them at mobile Web development. It's all the same Web, right? Of course, nothing is that simple. Few public-facing businesses in 2012 would argue against the need for a mo­bile website, but the considerations and skill sets involved can be remarkably divergent.

Should you have mobile web designers?

Should you have mobile web designers?

Similar, but . . .

"The Web on mobile devices uses a different set of tools from a PC browser approach," says Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates ('). "The underlying operating systems are different, so the target envi­ronments must be understood."

The most basic distinction is between Web-centric code and native (on-de- vice) application code. Obviously, na­tive code written under iOS's Cocoa framework in Objective-C isn't going to run on Android or BlackBerry, so developers need to work at porting their native apps between the various p. forms. Some people assume that simply coding for a mobile website alleviates the need to worry about platforms, but this isn't true. The site still needs to run properly on each of the major platforms as well as (at a minimum) those plat­forms' default browsers.

Cross-browser site compatibility is no easy task, even in the desktop world. However, development teams already versed in JavaScript for desktop browsing can learn what's needed to create compatible sites fairly easily.

"If companies have folks who al­ready have good JavaScript skills, the adaptation process can be fairly quick," says Jeffrey Hammond, principal ana­lyst at Forrester. "There are some fairly good JavaScript frameworks out there that do a great job of rendering apps on mobile platforms. What does take more time is understanding how a four-inch screen is different than a 10-inch or a 15-inch screen."

To begin with, a normal Web page covers a lot of space, with plenty of room for information and links. But any tablet user knows that link-heavy pages tapped by imprecise fingers lead to ac­cidental link-tapping and therefore time wasted in extra navigation. Thus de­signers must reimagine the entire page paradigm for mobile environments, and some designers may need additional training in order to "think small."

"Beyond layout," says Kay, "the designer has to presume that the user has no access to other windows, which, while not strictly true in all cases, is likely to hold in most. Therefore, there's little ability to refer to other pages or ex­change data between them the way one might on a PC. The Web app must be more self-contained, supplying all the information that the user might want to work with right there inside the app."

Not every business needs to worry about in-depth mobile Web training. In cases where native apps make the most sense anything from strategy games to business productivity apps-the company may only want to deal with supporting one or two platforms. The deciding factor is where the user's data needs to reside, which is often dictated by how often and at what speeds that data needs to be accessible. But in situ­ations where user data is kept off-de­vice, such as online banking, JavaScript, HTML5, and CSS combined can deliver most of the necessary ingredients for a professional mobile site. Better yet, these technologies cost fairly little to develop and maintain.

Additionally, it is possible to have mobile sites with rich GUIs that feel to users like native applications. This is feasible with libraries such as jQuery Mobile, jQTouch, and Sencha Touch, all of which target devices with WebKit-compatible browsers. Of course, such libraries also represent another bed of knowledge that on-staff developers will need to learn when trying to craft high­grade mobile sites.

In-house or Outsource?

According to Hammond, mobile Web consumption is massive right now, and companies can expect to pay top dollar for third-party development ser­vices, at least until more companies be­come proficient at handling their own needs in-house. There is always the op­tion of going offshore for programming, but this introduces its own complexities, and businesses are likely to find that even offshore mobile development costs more than other types of programming. This is a large part of why Hammond advises enterprises to develop their own mobile capabilities and capacity.

"You have to update applications or sites on a regular basis," he notes. "Because the operating systems update at least twice a year per platform, you're going to be doing more maintenance. If nothing else, you're going to be testing to make sure that when Apple updates its OS, it doesn't break your app. You want to support four operating sys­tems that are updating twice a year? Well, that's eight releases of your app or site to support each year, and if you're doing that externally, you're going to be paying a lot."

More users are accessing the web from more places on more devices than ever before

More users are accessing the web from more places on more devices than ever before

Another option is to go with off-the- shelf software. Clearly, this removes a fair bit of the development and support burden. After all, why reinvent Gmail if that's all that the company needs? In many cases, particularly for internal use, off-the-shelf is perfectly fine. It's when the business activity addressed by the mobile app or site is unique, and that uniqueness needs to be conveyed for branding or other purposes, that custom development becomes necessary.

"You need to go custom when the expense of buying off the shelf is higher than the expense of developing and maintaining your own," adds Hammond. "For tasks that are fairly hor­izontal, like collaboration, why would you write your own custom app? But for things that are unique to your busi­nesses, there are reasons to want your own custom developed app there."

Compromise solution

If it seems resources are limited to in-house development of mobile Web apps, but what your business truly needs is the performance or other at­tributes of a native app (which might require outsourcing), you may opt for a middle path with "hybrid" apps. Hybrids are downloadable, like native apps, but they run at least some of their UI through browser elements. The ad­vantage of hybrid is that it brings many of a native app's benefits but remains more agnostic for spanning across mul­tiple mobile platforms, and with fewer development headaches. Facebook's mobile app is a common example. The heavier reliance on HTML and JavaScript tools may make hybrid apps a more viable option for companies trying to seize their own mobile reins.

Four Mobile Application Development Choices

Four mobile application development choices

Four mobile application development choices

According to Forrester Research, there are essentially four approaches to mobile application development. What an organization chooses depends on its needs.

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