James Valentine looks at how the mobile internet is migrating towards an app-based ecosystem
(This article grew from a comment requested for Web Developer Magazine)
In some ways, mobile applications give with one hand and take away with the other. As developers and business people advising our clients, taking their content publishing from a web focus to an app-centric standpoint reduces their audience for that new investment but can improve user experience for the smartphone and tablet-touting minority, getting people talking and sharing. We can offer offline content, predictable appearance and behaviour across devices and more user interface integration far, far more easily with an app than we can with the website+browser equation. Yes, there are two main, competing platforms to support and neither iOS or Android is going away anytime soon, but at least the development kits are well-supported, the online communities are bustling with good advice and the documentation is coder-friendly. Yes, both have different business models and to use the famous Eric S. Raymond analogy, the former prefers a “cathedral” app store model whilst the latter offers a “bazaar” of software of varying quality available at the user's own risk. But as a complementary publishing platform, offering content via an app is a neat way to enjoy the combined benefits of statefulness, persistence of user preferences and low-latency UI integration on the platforms we select to support and code for, and what's more, we get them in a consistent, predictable way. And let's face it, that's something we'd kill for on the browser-mediated web of 2011.
Theory and practice, theory and practice. The fairytale promise of the web was of many different browsers on different fixed and mobile platforms displaying a attractive, usable version of a website. To some extent we succeeded: stick to the lowest common denominator of quirky HTML, basic CSS, limit your multimedia aspirations to the occasional animated GIF and keep your scripting on the server and you might be happy with the result, though your client probably won't be. Going a step further to meet their real-world-reasonable but web-unreasonable digital media marketing objectives, you could parse the browser's description of itself, its user agent string, then you could send different content to each browser on a per-device basis, but you'll hugely increase your development and maintenance workload. When you've done all of that you still need a default fall-back version and you must be resigned to the fact that most users will end up surfing it for some reason whatever else you've done to improve their experience with device-specific renderings.
Enter the app. The objective here is to lure your user away from her smartphone's browser and its best-guess website rendering and encourage her to download a view of your content designed specifically for her chosen platform. Luckily, she's on your side: she already knows that, set against almost any website, apps for her phone look better, feel smoother, can be added straight into her menu or dashboard view with their own icon. They normally offer some content even when she's offline. She knows the interface will be slicker, the advertising less intrusive than web banners and pop-ups and she won't have to zoom the page in and out to find what she wants to read. She also knows that she won't be faced with a white screen, a creeping progress bar and the “long scroll down” when all she wants is page two of the article she's enjoying. She'll have high hopes for your app, too. She knows the best apps integrate with her phone's address book and maybe other aspects of her device, allowing her to share what she finds or even the whole app with her contacts more easily. She expects your app to be polite and respect her phone's settings, not beeping when she is in a meeting or running her battery down, but most of all she wants to feel that your app is on her phone, not on the internet. In a way, she'll always feel that she must go to a website, but your app can come to her, pushing content, providing features and reminders and notifying her of them with an indication at the top of her screen. And the £1.99 or tiny text advert is the price she is prepared to pay for being abstracted a little from the messy, slow free-for-all world of the web.
So where does this leave your content publishing clients? If they are established enough, they have already endured the coming of the Internet which dramatically their disturbed decades-old communication protocols. Then they watched in panic as they were forced towards massive web investment, just to preserve their old readership figures. They now stare the “death of print” in the face whilst you explain to them that people no longer cut out articles and leave them on the kitchen table for their partner, but eschew the sticky note monologue, actively engaging in dialogue via email and full-blown discussion through web-based social network portals like Twitter and Facebook. And the app is next. Before they could fully appreciate that consumers want their content on the train, at the bus stop and in the doctor's waiting room on a screen the size of a cigarette packet, you have presented them with a new set of decisions to enhance the experience of these very users. The good news? They know can leverage your dependable expertise and knowledge of the mobile application development process and publishing infrastructure. They know that more than just shoehorn their content onto a smaller screen, you will sell them to their readership by making use of the controls and behaviours offered by the new platform, offering customisation, search and sharing tools that their readers will love. But best of all they will be teetering on the knife edge whilst their competitors hover tentatively on the hilt. The market won't wait: don't let your client.