Mobile manouevres in app land

Every week Techvibes republishes an article from Business in Vancouver. This article was originally published in issue #1097 – November 2 – 8, 2010.

The flood of new mobile devices to the market in recent years has brought consumers more choice in how they communicate, but the same flood is presenting a challenge to web developers.

As market fragmentation continues, with Research In Motion’s Playbook tablet being the latest device promising to change the way people consume content, developers are having to wade through a plethora of operating platforms, screen interfaces, network speeds and demographics to figure out how best to reach their target market.

That same fragmentation is a driving force behind the mobile web: while applications have been the talk of the wireless industry since Apple launched its iPhone two years ago, developers are realizing that they can reach a broader cross-section of consumers using mobile websites.

If developed right, those sites can function on a number of mobile devices – as opposed to native applications that only work on dedicated devices.

Nonetheless, certain sites are going to function better on certain devices, depending on the operating system, underlying code and interfaces on which they are built.

And given that cellphones, smartphones and tablets all use different interfaces, a website built with functionality for iPad’s touchscreen may have the functionality and navigability of a dollar-store calculator on another device.

“If you think about the web 10 years ago, we had something like five browsers to deal with, and everyone had different coding requirements,” said Stephen Beck, partner at Vancouver-based interactive agency Engine Digital Inc.

“That’s what we’re dealing with now with mobile web.”

He said clients still approach Engine Digital solely with mobile apps on their mind, without recognizing that they’re likely to reach more consumers with a mobile website.

“You’re still not reaching every device [with a mobile website] because there are literally thousands and thousands of devices to worry about.”

Nonetheless, he said that the maze of mobile choice presented to developers is solvable as long as developers keep the end goal in mind: reaching their particular target audience.

For example, if you’re a retail shop owner, its likely more of a priority to connect with iPhone owners than, say, iPad tablet owners.

That’s because, as a more mobile demographic, iPhone users are more likely to access your website – when, for example they pass your store on the sidewalk – than iPad owners, who are likely using their iPads at home or some other fixed location.

Beck noted that its still the norm for businesses to have a desktop-based website anchoring their online presence.

“But if you’re hoping your desktop website will adapt for the tablet space, you need to make sure that your stripping out some of the website code and technologies that don’t work in that environment.”

He noted for example, that Flash components can provide a robust user experience on a desktop website, but if you were to access that same website on many smartphones, those Flash components won’t work, diminishing the website’s impact.

Some standardization is occurring in the mobile space: WebKit, which is an open-source browser framework, is now being used by most major developers.

“WebKit will get us to a place where there is some commonality between all of these different devices,” said Beck.

As well, companies like Vancouver’s Mobify are building a business on helping developers cope with all the different mobile devices and technologies out there.

The company’s lead product is a self-serve application that developers can use to optimize websites for mobile phones.

Mobify essentially automates development processes like web-page compression and video optimization and it ensures coding compatibility across different devices.

“A really big challenge for designers is ensuring they have a holistic web framework that is available on any device, whether it’s a desktop, a mobile phone or a tablet,” said Igor Faletski, Mobify’s CEO.

“We take care of all the compatibility and programming, and web designers get a new medium to express themselves through – mobile.”

Faletski noted that many developers believe they have to start from scratch when creating a mobile website, even though much of the traffic online is being driven by desktop links found in Google’s search engine and on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

As a result, an existing desktop website can be a good springboard for developing a mobile website because of the web traffic it can garner.

“The end goal is to have one website that is usable on mobile and desktop and is amazing for both customer groups,” said Faletski.

Another organization in B.C. that is helping developers reach the mobile consumer is Vancouver’s Wavefront AC.

Through its local and remote shared testing resources, developers can test their mobile creations on more than 1,000 mobile handsets on different global mobile networks.