Mobile 2.0: Chapter 10 - Mobile Design and Development

by Brian Fling

Mobile Design and Development book cover

This excerpt is from Mobile Design and Development.

Mobile devices outnumber desktop and laptop computers three to one worldwide, yet little information is available for designing and developing mobile applications. Mobile Design and Development fills that void with practical guidelines, standards, techniques, and best practices for building mobile products from start to finish. With this book, you'll learn basic design and development principles for all mobile devices and platforms. You'll also explore the more advanced capabilities of the mobile web, including markup, advanced styling techniques, and mobile Ajax.

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You’ve probably heard the term “Web 2.0.” Although it’s a commonly used term, most people you ask in the web business can’t tell you what it means. To put it simply, it is just a label for the second generation of the web industry. But more importantly, it is meant to denote a change in that what we now believe in and stand for, which is not as it was before. The suffix 2.0 in technology implies that a product is new and improved, reinvented to be better and maybe even more relevant.

In the 1990s, we saw the adoption of the first generation of web technology, allowing businesses to create websites focused on the consumer market at that time. The “dot-com boom” was not about the Web; it was actually more of a boom in networking computers via the Internet, mostly driven by desire to use email as a communication and productivity tool.

In the early 2000s, the Web found its own voice. Though the technology had only incrementally evolved, the production costs dropped at the same time the market increased, creating exciting new opportunities to increase communications and productivity. Personal publishing became simple and easy to do, allowing more people to share more information and new ideas built on common problems to gain wider traction and adoption. The result was a fundamental change in how we create products for the Web, including everything from how we code, to how we design, even down to how we do business.

A few years ago, the mobile community started to discuss the idea of “Mobile 2.0,” borrowing from many of the same principles behind Web 2.0. Each of these principles serves to transform the Web into a more agile and user-centered medium for delivering information to the masses. Mobile development, under the bottlenecks of device fragmentation and operator control, is sorely in need of a little reinvention as well.

Following is a recap of the original seven principles of Web 2.0:

The Web as a platform

For the mobile context, this means “write once, deploy everywhere,” moving away from the costly native applications deployed over multiple frameworks and networks.

Harnessing collective intelligence

This isn’t something the mobile community has done much of, but projects like WURFL—an open source repository of device profiles provided by the community—is exactly what mobile needs more of.

Data is the next Intel inside

Mobile takes this principle several steps further. It can include the data we seek, the data we create, and the data about or around our physical locations.

End of the software release cycle

Long development and testing cycles heavily weigh on mobile projects, decreasing all hopes of profitability. Shorter agile cycles are needed to make mobile development work as a business. Releasing for one device, iterating, improving, and then releasing for another is a great way to ensure profitability in mobile.

Lightweight programming models

Because mobile technology is practically built on enterprise Java, the notion of using lightweight models is often viewed with some skepticism. But decreasing the programming overhead required means more innovation occurs faster.

Software above the level of a single device

This effectively means that software isn’t just about computers anymore. We need to approach new software as though the user will demand it work in multiple contexts, from mobile phones to portable gaming consoles and e-book readers.

Rich user experiences

A great and rich user experience helps people spend less time with the software and more time living their lives. Mobile design is about enabling users to live their lives better.

Although the mobile industry has been through many more evolutions than just two, the concepts behind Web 2.0 are some of the most important ideas in not just mobile technology, but the Web as a whole.

What Is Mobile 2.0?

In autumn 2006, I was asked to help design and build a website for the first Mobile 2.0 conference, happening a few days before O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Summit. The event was put together by several Mobile Monday organizers. Mobile Monday is a series of mobile social gatherings that happen all over the world on the first Monday of the month. The idea was to bring some of the greatest minds in the mobile field together in San Francisco to attend the Web 2.0 Summit in order to discuss the future of mobile development.

By the time the event arrived, I had become frustrated with the term Web 2.0. By this time, it had devolved from a great idea to jargon that people would casually toss about. Everyone wanted “Web 2.0,” but no one understood what it meant. Needless to say, I was skeptical about anything labeled 2.0. So I went to the first Mobile 2.0, curious about exactly what my fellow speakers thought Mobile 2.0 actually meant.

By the end of the day, I had a loosely defined picture of what Mobile 2.0 was, and for the first time in a long time I was excited about the future of mobile development. I saw a groundswell from the people at the conferences to finally overcome the industry bureaucracy and technical problems that had gone unsolved for too long. I saw not only what mobile technology could be, but people willing to make it happen.

In an interesting twist of foreshadowing, the first Mobile 2.0 event occurred only a few months before the announcement of the first iPhone—a device that would come to symbolize many of the things we talked about that day.

I took away many principles about Mobile 2.0, and about the future of mobile, which still hold true today. Like in Web 2.0, these ideas cover the industry from principles to techniques. The principles of Mobile 2.0 discussed in the following sections try to define the direction mobile development is headed in, sometimes by calling out the problems the medium faces still to this day.

Mobile 2.0: The Convergence of the Web and Mobile

It is obvious that in the minds of many, Mobile 2.0 is the Web. At this point, the mobile web has always been viewed as a second-class citizen within the mobile ecosystem, for many reasons, as discussed later.

Mobile is already a medium, but the consensus is that by leveraging the power of the Web, integrating web services into the mobile medium is the future of mobile development. When the iPhone exploded onto the scene, it increased the usage of the mobile web by its users to levels never seen before. The spur of new mobile web apps created just for the iPhone doubled the number of mobile websites available in under a year.

If Web 2.0 taught us that the Web is the platform, then Mobile 2.0 tells us that mobile will be the primary context in which we leverage the Web in the future.

The Mobile Web Browser As the Next Killer App

If the future of mobile is the Web, then it only makes sense that the mobile web browser is the next killer app of mobile. Again, this is something we saw confirmed with WebKit in the iPhone and later in Android.

However, of particular concern is how device fragmentation factors into mobile browsers. For example, how can we expect developers to support more than 30 different mobile browsers? A fellow panelist from the Mozilla Minimo project offered a potential solution in consolidation—that we will see only a few mobile browsers in the future; specifically, browsers built on Mozilla, Opera, Internet Explorer, and WebKit technologies. At the time, I thought that prediction was too focused on smartphones, but in the years since, the line between smartphone and feature phone seems to be going away, so this prediction is fairly accurate.

But the single biggest challenge in mobile remains device fragmentation. The mobile browser enables us to penetrate the problem by not having our content locked so specifically to the device abilities, screen size, and form factor, but device fragmentation still causes old, outdated browsers to remain in the market long after they should be put out to pasture.

What appears to be solving browser fragmentation is actually the iPhone. The Mobile Safari browser included with the iPhone provided such an excellent web experience on a mobile device that it drove use of the mobile web to huge levels, which means big profits for the operators. This also means that the mobile web is no longer a second-class citizen. In the post-iPhone market, all new devices are judged by the quality of their mobile web browser. Operators know it and therefore are demanding better browsers from device makers and browser makers.

Mobile Web Applications Are the Future

Creating mobile web applications instead of mobile software applications has remained an area of significant motivation and interest. The mobile community is looking at the Web 2.0 revolution for inspiration, being able to create products and get them to market quickly and at little cost. They see the success of small iterative development cycles and want to apply this to mobile development, something that is not that feasible in the traditional mobile ecosystem.

Developers have been keen for years to shift away from the costly mobile applications that are difficult to publish through the mobile service provider, require massive testing cycles and costly porting to multiple devices, and can easily miss the mark with users after loads of money have been dumped into them.

The iPhone App Store and the other mobile device marketplaces have made it far easier to publish and sell, but developers still have to face difficult approval processes, dealing with operator and device maker terms and porting challenges.

Mobile software has two fundamental problems that mobile web applications solve. The first is forcing users through a single marketplace. We know from years of this model that an app sold through a marketplace can earn huge profits if promoted correctly. Being promoted correctly is the key phrase. What gets promoted and why is a nebulous process with no guarantees. One thing is certainly true: the companies that know how to work the system are the ones that get the big prizes, making it increasingly hard for the small developer to see any kind of success. But the mobile web provides any size of developer with the ability to promote and distribute their app on their terms, building a relationship directly with their customers and not by proxy.

The second problem is the ability to update your application. It is certainly possible on modern marketplaces like the App Store, but we are still years from that being the norm. Mobile web apps enable you to make sure that you never ship a broken app, or if your app breaks in the future due to a new device, to be able to fix it the same day the device hits the street. This flexibility isn’t possible in the downloaded app market.

JavaScript Is the Next Frontier

If you are going to provide mobile web applications, you have to have a mobile web browser that supports Ajax, or, as it is technically known, XMLHttpRequest. It makes a lot of those cool interactions in your web browser work via the capability to load content asynchronously into your browser view.

But it isn’t just Ajax; it is JavaScript, a web technology that has largely been ignored with most mobile web browsers. Ajax is great, but just being able to do a little show/hide or change a style after you click or touch it goes a long way toward improving the user experience.

This is probably where mobile web browsers fall behind desktop browsers the most. Because they both support XHTML and CSS relatively well, JavaScript has been a no-go in mobile for years. In order for mobile web apps to rival native applications, you have to support some JavaScript.

Modern mobile browsers have made much progress over the last few years, but there is still plenty of work to be done. For example, accessing the device capabilities like the phone book or filesystem with JavaScript doesn’t work in a consistent way. These problems still need to be solved in order to truly reap the benefits of the Web.

Rich interactions kill battery life

JavaScript and Ajax have been ignored because using an Ajax-based web application on your phone can drain your battery at a rate of four to five times your normal power consumption. I’ve heard a number of reasons for why this happens from mobile hardware guys much smarter than myself, but to summarize, the two most prevalent are:

  • JavaScript consumes more processor power and therefore more battery life.

  • Ajax apps fetch more data from the network, meaning more use of the radio and more battery life.

Unless you are in the habit of carrying around a bunch of extra batteries, expect to charge your phone every hour or two as a penalty for using the modern mobile web.

Apple and the open source WebKit browser have made huge strides by releasing a JavaScript engine that is incredibly efficient on mobile devices, though the other big mobile browser technologies aren’t far behind. This problem is going away quickly as the mobile browsers get better, batteries improve efficiency, and devices get more powerful.

The Mobile User Experience Is Awful

Traditionally, the user experience available in the mobile web has been like using a website from 1995: mostly text-based, difficult to use, and ugly as sin. This isn’t to say that the user experience of mobile applications has been much better, but it used to be that if you wanted a good experience, you built a native app.

Descriptions within the industry range from the honest “the mobile user experience is utterly horrid,” to the sales pitch of “look at these cool things you can do,” to the optimistic “the mobile user experience is the future!” These polar attitudes toward the mobile user experience are somewhat ironic, given that the mobile user experience was largely ignored for close to a decade. People in mobile treat the user experience like a chicken-and-egg scenario: bad input/output of the user experience prevents adoption, but designing a shiny user experience with bells and whistles will bring them in droves.

Device APIs usually force you to use their models of user experience, meaning that you have to work in the constraints of the API. This is good for creating consistent experiences for that platform, but these experiences don’t translate to others. For example, would you take an iPhone app design and put it on an Android device? The user experience for these devices is similar but still remains different.

The beauty of the Web, literally, is that you can design whatever experience you want, for better or worse. You are in control of the presentation and can establish your own visual metaphors. The problem has been that traditionally complex (which often equates to good) user experiences haven’t been possible on mobile devices. Modern mobile web browsers, as they come closer to their desktop counterparts, remove this distinction, giving us the same canvas on mobile devices that we have for the desktop. This means that creating mobile experiences just got a whole lot easier. It also means we can have a consistent user experience across multiple mediums.

Mobile Widgets Are the Next Big Thing

At many Mobile 2.0 events, I’ve heard a lot of buzz about mobile widgets, though no one can tell me how mobile widgets would define a mobile widget, or how they are different from mobile web apps. The consensus seems to be that the solution for the challenges with the mobile web is to create a series of “small webs” targeted at a specific user or task. Though I couldn’t figure out the problem being solved with these widgets, I had to admit that they looked pretty cool.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the concept of small network-enabled applications is very promising, but the mobile industry tends to take promising ideas like this, inflate expectations to unsustainable levels, then abandon them at the first sign of trouble or sacrifice them for the next big thing, whichever happens first.

The mobile web is here: it works, but it just needs some love. It is the long bet. I believe we should get that sorted out before we try to add widgets on top of it.

Carrier Is the New “C” Word

I noticed a strong tendency over the years for people in the mobile industry to avoid uttering the word “carrier.” Even the more European equivalent term “operator” seems to be on the decline. To give you an example of how much carriers are hated: you can have entire conversations with people who work for the big operators and even they will avoid using the term in conversation.

It is almost like when you get a bunch of mobile experts in a room for a day: they want to pretend that operators don’t exist at least for one day. Maybe they prefer to see a future with no mobile service providers at all. I think more likely the case is that the industry has finally figured out that very few can make a profit when your business relies on carriers. Though the “C” word isn’t uttered often, it still is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

It is clear that one of the key drivers of Mobile 2.0 and the focus on the mobile web is to find a way to build a business that doesn’t rely on carrier control.

Mobile Needs to Check Its Ego

For years, I’ve sat on the line between the mobile community and the web community. They have treated each other almost like rivals. I’ve been frustrated with both sides, but it is the mobile camp that needs to check their egos at the door and get into the game, before they learn that all the rules have changed.

On the mobile side, you have some incredibly intelligent people who have been innovating amazing products under insane constraints for years. On the web side, you have creative amateurs who have helped build a community and ecosystem out of passion and an openness to share information.

The web guys want to get into the game and move the medium forward, partly out of desire open up a new market for themselves, but mostly out of passion for all things interactive. But, to the mobile community, they are seen as a threat to expertise. On the other hand, to the web community, the mobile guys come off as overly protective, territorial, selfish, and often snobbish or egotistical, effectively saying, “Go away.”

Don’t get me wrong—I think that the mobile guys are very smart and great people; some of them I consider to be close friends. They have to deal with really hard problems that would make a web professional give up to go serve coffee. But I’m a very patient and tolerant person, and I have to admit that these same people are some of the most difficult people I’ve ever worked with.

For example, for years I wondered why I, a designer with mobile experience, have been asked to speak at so many conferences or write so many articles. I would think to myself, “I can think of 10 guys who know a lot more about mobile than I do. They should be here, not me.” But then this guy who came up to me after one of my workshops said, “I’ve been in mobile for a long time, and have been to a lot of mobile events, but no one has ever spoken about mobile so plainly.” I thanked him for the wonderful comment and replied, “Well, that’s the problem with mobile, isn’t it?”

My point is that unless the mobile community comes together with the web community by sharing information, experience, and guidance, one day they will find that their experience has become obsolete. In return, the web guys will share their enthusiasm, willingness to learn, and passion that many in mobile development have forgot.

It’s that one principle of Web 2.0 that the mobile community has left out: harnessing collective intelligence. The Web and the mobile community are reaching a point where the two worlds can no longer afford not to be working together, sharing what they know and harnessing the collective intelligence of both media.

We Are Creators, Not Consumers

The final principle of Mobile 2.0 is recognizing that we are in a new age of consumerism. Yesterday’s consumer does not look anything like today’s consumer. The people of today’s market don’t view themselves as consumers, but rather as creators. But before we get into that, let’s back up for a minute.

The web is about content. Sure, there are programming languages, APIs, and other technical underpinnings, but what do you do when you open a web browser? You read. Our primary task online is to read, to gain information. During the early days of the Web, it took tools and know-how in order to publish to the Web. But early in the Web 2.0 evolution, we saw a rise in tools that allowed us to publish to the Web easily, giving individuals a voice online, with a massive audience.

This democratization of the Web took many forms that some call “social media,” like blogging, social networks, media sharing, microblogging, and lifestreams. Although social media may have many facets, they all share the same goal: to empower normal, everyday people to become creators and publishers of content. It started with the written word, then music, then photos, and more recently video was added. Entire markets have been created to provide today’s consumer with gadgets, software, and web services to record and publish content so that we can share it with our friends and loved ones.

At the center of this revolution in publishing is the mobile device. As networked portable devices become more powerful, allowing us to capture, record, and share content in the moment, we are able to add a new kind of context to content—the likes of which we haven’t seen since satellite television. Now you can share any moment with any group of people in real time. Think about how powerful a concept that is! It could change entire cultures.

Tony Fish, coauthor of Mobile Web 2.0 (futuretext), says:

When everyone has the tools to create content, in addition to zero-cost publishing, we do not consume content, we create it.[8]

In the early days of the Web, I marveled at how a networked population might change our society forever. Now I realize that the change occurs wherever the device is, the context it is within. The early “Web 1.0” days clearly changed how business is done, because businesses are the primary consumer of desktop computers. It probably is no coincidence that Web 2.0 occurred around the same time that laptop computers became affordable for the average person, making the Web a more personal medium.

With Mobile 2.0, the personal relevance of the content matches how personal the device is and how personally it applies to our everyday situations or our context. I see now that this is the time and medium that delivers on that initial promise of the Web: to change society forever.

[8] Sources: and Mobile as 7th of the Mass Media, by Tomi Ahonen (futuretext).

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