What happens when all application work moves to mobile?

by Frank 7. December 2011 13:01

What needs to happen?

Just as dissatisfied end users drove the PC and networking revolution in the early 1980s (away from mainframe backlogs); end users are now driving the mobile revolution.

End users are telling IT departments what technology they want to work with and most IT departments have come to the conclusion that they have little choice in the matter other than to decide the security regime and hardware and software tools necessary to support the nominated mobile devices securely.

Software companies all over the world just like us are either shifting allegiances or covering their bets by investing in new genre mobile applications. In addition, a whole new software development sub-industry has sprung up that concentrates on new types of applications not previously seen on the traditional PC and notebook; it is a huge growth industry.

Traditional business application software developers are rapidly coming to terms with the new design paradigm for mobile apps, designed and architected to suit the capabilities of the Smartphone and tablet and slick enough and cool enough and easy-to-use enough to suit the demands of the mobile user. The message comes through loud and clear, make it too hard to use with too many options and too many steps and they won’t use it.

The mobile device has unique user interface requirements not just because of the characteristics of the device (e.g., the small form factor of a Smartphone) but the eminently reasonable and sensible demands of the experienced mobile user who wants something as slick and cool and intuitive as his/her other mobile apps. The app must also work seamlessly with the accepted and ‘standard’ way each type of mobile devices operates. If it runs on an iPad then it must look, feel and work just like every other iOS app; it cannot change the way a user works with his/her mobile device; it must employ a totally standard and familiar user interface.

The huge advantage of mobile apps is that no end user training is required. In fact, if an end user can’t figure it out immediately, the app will fail (back to the drawing board). I am not sure if industry has worked this out yet. That is, design the app properly and appropriately and no end user training will be involved. How many billions of dollars are we talking about in cost savings?

However, there is a caveat, and that is that when I talk about mobile apps I am talking about ‘native’ mobile apps; those that run under the mobile device’s operating system, e.g., iOS or Android.  I am not talking about what we call web apps or apps that run within the browser. Most web apps don’t look anything like the native apps and do not employ the same ‘native’ user interface. They look the same (or similar) under Safari on the iPad as they do running under IE9 on a Windows 7 PC. A lot do have special ‘cut-down’ versions to suit the much smaller form factor of a Smartphone but very few actually look like and work like true native mobile apps (e.g., something written in Xcode for iOS).

Web apps usually have significantly more functionality that native apps and they do require end user training, usually a lot of training.

Software developers will   eventually move away from now old-fashioned Windows application development (i.e., what we used to call ‘fat’ clients) but they cannot afford to move away from web application development because for a lot of applications, especially the larger and more complex applications like for example SAP, it is currently just not possible or practicable to convert all of the fat client functionality to native mobile apps; we just are not there yet.

Traditional fat client business apps are large, complex and have multiple screens, multiple menus, hundreds of features and thousands of options. This kind of application does not convert well to a native mobile app. For anyone who has ever worked with SAP, try to imagine re-implementing SAP functionality on a native mobile app and making it so easy to use it doesn’t require end user training. This could be what we euphemistically call a challenge.

In phase one of our mobile app revolution I believe we will see a hybrid model where big corporations and government roll out a combination of both native and web mobile apps. As the technology and tools improve we will see more and more appropriate functionality being implemented as native apps but not being removed from the web apps, at least not for a few years yet. This evolving paradigm needs developers and users to work together to discover what works best on mobile apps in native mode. We need to test and experiment but at least there will be little lost time waiting to see if end users accept our new ideas. The modern mobile user is adept at evaluating and deciding on an app within a few minutes and the weight of end user reviews will kill a bad native app faster than a live degausser resting on your hard drive.

The move to mobile apps also requires some significant improvements in communications. We are not going to be running our business over 3G; we must have at least 4G and/or high speed broadband and we must have the services universally available.

We also probably need the next one or two generations of mobile devices to be faster and smarter and to offer more variety and choice in form factor (i.e., screen size). The iPad screen may be fine for most things but its limited size makes it unsuitable for applications that require a lot of screen real estate.  Yes, you could always redesign the busy screen into several screens but that won’t suit the user who needs to see everything at once and there are lots of applications that need a lot of screen real estate to meet the particular needs of the end user; think stock markets analysis and financial trading and control monitoring applications (e.g., for a Power Station) that need single-view and very detailed dashboards.

There is also the unassailable fact that more and more of us are getting older and that presbyopia generally sets in at around forty five years of age. For the uninitiated, the first onset of presbyopia is usually when you discover that your arms are no longer long enough to read the morning paper. It is also when you start having trouble reading small print on any medium. The older you get the further out you focal distance moves until such time that you can no longer read fine print without the aid of eyeglasses. A little later, even the eyeglasses don’t help much and you really need bigger fonts and a larger form factor.

That is, just in case the makers of Smartphones and tablets are not listening, we older working folk would really like you to think about us when you are designing the screens and buttons of your next generation of mobile devices; thank you, your cooperation would be most appreciated. Thanks to the GFC a lot more of us older folk are going to be in the labour market for a lot longer.

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