Bringing enterprise applications effectively out to mobile devices is a complex subject that has required some harsh trade-offs from developers in the past — trade-offs between rich, native applications targeted at specific devices versus standardized mobile application approaches that have simply failed to impress users.
Such trade-offs have also limited the ability of Web developers to take their full PC browser applications out to the mobile tier without losing powerful features, or finding that the transition to smaller form factors just doesn’t hold up. Yet, a new day might be dawning for enterprise developers who want to make the mobile leap.
Thanks to the sizable impact that the Apple iPhone and its WebKit browser have had in the market, the mobile device competition is responding. It’s sniffing out new business opportunities around application stores, selling application by application, and there are mobile commerce implications of that as well.
We’re also seeing advertising creep into the mobile tier. All of these trends and effects are mounting now for development to increase and for more applications to find their way out to these devices. Also, such developments as HTML, Android, and advances in scripting and open source tools have made the mobile Web suddenly more attractive and attainable for mainstream development and developers.
So, this podcast discussion explores how the development field for mobile Web applications is shaping up and how targeting the modern mobile Web browser may be removing some of the harshness from the trade-offs of the past over form, function and unsatisfactory standards.
To help unpack the mobile Web, joining me in this conversation are Stephen O’Grady, founder and analyst at RedMonk; Wayne Parrott, vice president for product development at Genuitec; and David Beers, a senior wireless developer at MapQuest.
Listen to the podcast (34:30 minutes).
Dana Gardner: Let’s start first with Stephen at Redmonk. You’ve been following these issues for quite some time. Why have the mobile Web and mobile applications become so important now?
Stephen O’Grady: It’s really for a number of different reasons. We have better wireless options than we’ve had in the past. Wireless pricing is more conducive to adoption. In addition, we’ve seen, just within the past 12 to 18 months, a real revolution in terms of the adoption of applications, largely due to the success of the iPhone platform, which just recently sold its billionth application.
The success there is again due to the environmental and contextual factors, but also the success in the design of the device itself, in which we finally have a real Web browser. In your introduction, you mentioned WebKit, which is the foundation for the browser. Obviously that’s on the iPhone platform.
For the first time, users have a real Web experience, as opposed to a stripped-down, bare-bones site in terms of what they can experience via the mobile Web. We need to pair the environmental and contextual factors with the advances that we’ve seen in the devices themselves. They’ve all come together to give us a rich and deep experience that will allow us to do things that we haven’t been able to do before with the devices.
Gardner: We’re also seeing some economic factors, given the tough economy. When you see the success that a little game application can have and how engaging it can be, I think the enterprise bean counters say, “Wow, why can’t we bring some of our applications down to that same tier, but at a much lower price point and perhaps out to a much wider user base — either employees or partners, or even end-customers?”
O’Grady: The user base is one of the important factors. Certainly, the pricing in the applications is very conducive to adoption. In other words, if it’s a couple of dollars an application, as Apple has proven with its iTunes store and BlackBerry has attempted to duplicate, we’re seeing real low barrier-to-entry price points. This will spur adoption of the individual applications themselves.
When you’re an enterprise vendor or a consumer vendor looking to target a volume audience, the fact is that there are a lot more mobile devices than there are desktops and laptops. There are mobile devices all over the planet. …
Gardner: Let’s go to David. You’re a developer in the mobile tier. How does an organization like MapQuest handle this whole issue of so many choices on that endpoint?
David Beers: It’s both a problem and an opportunity. From a developer’s standpoint, and I am a developer, it’s obviously difficult, because the amount of energy that you put in is divided across all of these different platforms. You have to make difficult decisions about developing the features you want with the resources you’ve got and perhaps limiting the targets that you’re able to reach, as far as devices are concerned. Or, you may be faced with — partly because of resource constraints and partly because of the need to try to fit across the lowest common denominator — releasing apps that aren’t as powerful or as functional as you’d like them to be in order to get that reach. That’s a difficult thing.
On the positive side, “fragmentation” is a pejorative term that we use for differentiation. It’s painful for developers, but we can’t pretend that it’s all a bad thing, because it’s really driven by rapid innovation. A lot of the fragmentation that we see out there is because we’ve got these capabilities now on handsets.
So many of them have GPS, for example, which is a huge opportunity for MapQuest. We would definitely want to be able to leverage those capabilities. As Stephen was saying, part of this uptake in application usage is because the technology is getting better. So you’ve got to go to where that improvement is.
Gardner: So, we have choices and trade-offs, but we also seem to have some coalescing around a better path. Why don’t we go to Wayne? Tell us how you see the improvement, now that we’ve identified the problematic past. How do you see things improving?
Wayne Parrott: Looking back, things have been a pretty big mess on mobile for the whole. You kicked off by talking about some of the improvements in the smarter phones and the capabilities they bring in, both higher-end horsepower on the smartphones and a much better browsing experience or engine now showing up on the iPhone-class machines. The programming model that is now available enables a whole new class of Web-type applications, which in the past has been reserved for native applications.
Going back to talking about native, again, the fragmentation issue pops up. As you start to move forward with the WebKit-type browsers now more prevalent on these smarter phones, it’s starting to represent a more common platform that we have a choice to target our application functionality toward.
Gardner: So, perhaps this goal of being able to “write once, run once” doesn’t really work, given the variety of devices. “Write once, run anywhere” doesn’t work, because of the differences in the native approaches. So, we’re stuck with “write many times, and run many places.” It’s got to be better than that, though! How do we manage and make that a bit more amenable from a technology and a business perspective? Again, I’ll take that to Wayne.
Parrott: Obviously, recognizing the advances in the platform itself and being able to take advantage of the mobile Web capability of the newer iPhone-class machines is something that has caught a lot of enterprises’ attention. Before, they were scared off by the prospect of the cost of going native and the fragmentation issues around that.
Going back to focusing toward mobile Web and the WebKit browsers gives them the opportunity to start to look at their existing resources and their know-how, in terms of what they’ve been doing in the past as far as Web. They can ask, “What’s the gap that I have to close in order to repurpose and retarget my resources, my content [and] services toward reaching people where they are now?” More and more people are living mobile. So, what is it you have to do?
They’re quickly starting to realize that the new smartphones are giving them a great new capability, and it’s not that big a gap that they have to cross over in order to be able to reach users in a much more cost-effective level by focusing on the capabilities that the mobile Web gives them.
Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, which tracks trends, delivers forecasts and interprets the competitive landscape of enterprise applications and software infrastructure markets for clients. He also produces BriefingsDirect sponsored podcasts. Follow Dana Gardner on Twitter. Disclosure: Genuitec sponsored this podcast.