Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

The Future of Mobile (is the Web)

Those employing a content-based digital marketing strategy should continue to focus on the web and adaptive design for mobile devices rather than dilute their focus by developing for the apps marketplaces.

I am amazed by how much strategic planning and selling of "insights" is being done these days around mobile technology. Do enough of us really consider mobile such a mystery to support a cottage industry of mobile consultants? It is certainly not true that all of that activity is wasteful, but it is also not justified that the explosion of mobile technology engender such a vast feeling of unpreparedness. The way I see it, if you own a mobile device and are comfortable using it, you possess far more expertise about the platform than you give yourself credit for. If you use them, then you know them.

Of course, just like any other technology or expertise area, there are those who have more time and resources to dig deeper on matters than others, so if we have questions about how to better prepare strategically for the future as it looks through the small screens in our pockets, others probably have the informed answers we need. That is just fine—if you have the resources to invest in employing a research analyst or consultant to guide you through the mobile "space," more power to you. But if you do not have those resources, as I imagine is true of most reading this, then I want to encourage you to leverage what you already know. Take out your mobile device for a moment and ask yourself, what do you love about it? What works so well about it that it has become indispensable to you? What could be better about mobile experiences and how could you contribute to their improvement?

Mobile devices have proliferated to such an extent that with their virtually instant ubiquity has come the illusion of stability of the entire industry surrounding them. But it is better that we see the industry as a laboratory; its initial success and profitability, no matter how outstanding, is not yet reliable enough to establish a robust "theory" of mobile upon which our planning can rest assured. We are still figuring so many things out in such rapidly revolving cycles—how to make better devices, how to adapt content for them, repeat—that neither the device makers nor the content creators can afford to stop and take a breath. The situation is challenging, but not futile; I am certainly not going to advocate we all bury our heads in the sand and wait for stability. Being very much a believer in the immediately leverage-able, flexible power of the web, the point of view on mobile that I would like to share with you is unblushingly web and content focused. Hence the title; the mobile web is not a new thing, it is the same thing, just through a new screen.

I am going to explore in a bit more detail how mobile devices work and the role they play in our culture before weighing the pros and cons of app and web-focused approaches to mobile strategy. But first, I am happy to offer my overall opinion as it stands today in short: Those employing a content-based digital marketing strategy should continue to focus on the web and adaptive design for mobile devices rather than dilute their focus by developing for the apps marketplaces. I will spend the rest of this article defending this statement…


James Pearce | July 19, 2011 2:30 PM
When your arguments against 'apps' include 'Economic Oligarchy', 'Unnecessary Redundancy' and 'No URLs', you're clearly using the word to mean native and/or those distributed into app stores.

But what about 'app-like' experiences built with web technologies, and which still enjoy URL-based distribution, economic freedom, and some cross-platform benefits to boot?

These are exciting. Potentially the best of both worlds - Gmail, FT etc etc

HTML5 (by the admission of its authors) is about elevating the web onwards from being document-centric and towards being able to support app-like experiences.

As an aside, I think that also gives us a chance to bust out of the comfortable 'One Web / immutable documents / RWD / context-doesn't-exist' glass ceiling that's holding the web back from its true potential on the mobile medium. Let's think bigger.
Christoper Butler | July 18, 2011 2:53 PM
Steven: Glad to hear it! I'd definitely encourage you to start playing with responsive design techniques.

Michael: I'm actually not frustrated by client requests for apps. I see that happening in the industry in general, but our clients haven't contributed heavily to that perspective. In fact, I'm not agains apps prima facie--I'm just against them when the web would be a better match for the content. Just the other day, I recommended an app to a client.

Otherwise, I think we're basically in agreement: I don't actually consider the mobile device purely an extension of the desktop. On the contrary, the mobile device is a unique context, one that might involve a user on the move or a user simply removed from another context (i.e. the desk). In either case, the context defines the behavior and the needed interactivity. Native apps, of course, will be needed for plenty of things.

Ultimately, my point is that, for many marketing-focused websites, a mobile-friendly site that preserves the content's location on the web would be a better approach than trying to adapt content for an app that would be distributed through the apps marketplace.
Michael Ritchie | July 18, 2011 12:47 PM
To me your article speaks more about your personal frustration with clients wanting native applications when they should really be gearing their existing content towards web-based mobile delivery. I can certainly understand that. But you also suggest that the mobile device is basically an extension of the desktop + a phone. In that respect, native applications are always going to be needed and developed and in some context, they are just a better solution.

It's a bit of a stretch for me to say that we all these developers making native apps are going away in favor of mobile. I think the context of your content picks the delivery mechanism and there is certainly room for both mechanisms on the desktop as well as mobile.

I see a future where there are many devices in many different environments requiring new native applications as well as web-based solutions. This whole web vs app debate is more about our own frustrations and fears of the changing development landscape than an actual debate about one dominating our future.

Steven Randall | June 9, 2011 6:41 AM
I really enjoyed your article and it made me feel so much more calm about the way everything is moving so fast. We are design company mainly working in print but feel that we have should also develop digital solutions for clients. While we work with website developers we only really work on websites and not apps and we tend to do the front end design and have someone develop the back end coding etc. Clients do however, seem to be excited by having more 'toys to play with' in their marketing strategies but I think the point you make about responsive website design as a much more long term solution is one which I am happier to embrace. You are right about focusing on content first and also the problems of searching, bookmaking and linking with apps. It has definitely made me rethink my strategy when it comes to discussing digital solutions with clients.
Thank you!
Christopher Butler | June 6, 2011 10:00 AM
Eric: Thanks for reading and stopping to leave a comment. SMS is definitely big, but it's big in a less visible way than other things we're excited about today. Back in February, CBC Radio's The Spark did an episode that covered a couple of points relevant to mobile. In the first segment, they looked at a new form of digital currency called BitCoin, which isn't managed over SMS but is an indicator of the trend of virtualizing money—which, of course, could be transacted over SMS. This segued into their second segment on how money is being distributed over SMS in African countries. The entire episode is online at the link above and worth checking out.

I'm not sure if you clicked over to read the Tomi Ahonen piece I linked to in the "Understanding Mobile by the Numbers" section. If not, I recommend it; there's a huge amount of detail I didn't mention in this article. For instance, here's a clip of what Ahonen reported on SMS (I bolded a few key points):
So the huge number here is SMS obviously. Yes, 4.2 billion people are already active users of SMS text messaging. Don't listen to any of those fools who suggest SMS is going away. There is nothing in the digital world coming close to what SMS is today. Look at its size. SMS text messaging has more than twice the number of users as all users of the internet. Nearly four times more people send SMS text messages than have a PC of any kind. While email can also be accessed at internet cafes and at work - with 1.4 billion unique users of email worldwide, including residential consumer users and business/work email accounts - SMS is 3 times bigger than email already.

Do you think Facebook is 'important' and 'popular' - well, SMS is only ... seven ... yes seven (!) times bigger than Facebook. You like Twitter? SMS is 21 times bigger than Twitter! And is SMS 'slowing down'? No. The world's most widely used data application grew users by 17% in just one year! Did the traffic grow? You betcha! Try 24% in just one year! And what of SMS revenues you ask? Well, SMS hit revenue levels of 120 Billion dollars in 2010, which is a growth rate of 6% from the level in 2009. Do not for one moment think SMS will go away any time soon.

SMS is the only technology that reaches the pockets of 61% of the planet. SMS user base is literally bigger than the total number of radio receivers in use globally, three times as big as the number of television sets and almost four times as big as the total installed base of all personal computers in use (and not all of those are connected to the internet, mind you).

SMS delivers news and alerts - 1.2 billion people pay to receive news on their mobile phones - most do so via SMS text messaging. Note this number is more than all who pay for cable TV (ie who have access to 24 hour cable news services). The number who pay to receive news on their phones is nearly 3 times bigger than the total paid circulation of all daily newspapers worldwide. Yes.

And SMS does money! SMS has cannibalized coins and Estonia and Sweden are among the countries that are now decommissioning coins from some industries like parking, public transportation etc. In Kenya more than half of all banking accounts are SMS banking accounts, and 25% of the total Kenyan economy transits SMS based mobile payments. SMS does just about anything you could imagine from delivering answers to questions on AQA and ChaCha to reminding about medical appointments to teaching basic literacy skills.
David: I'm glad you enjoyed the article and that it spoke to the feelings you've already had about apps vs. web. Thanks for your comment!
David Rosen | June 4, 2011 2:17 PM
Thank you for an informative, well reasoned and well documented post that clearly presents opinions that I have long held but couldn't adequately articulate concerning the superiority of mobile webs vs apps in most instances and the need for web design that automatically conforms to the media being used. You have put a wealth of information into perspective and done a great service.
Eric Jensen | June 3, 2011 4:56 PM
Interesting article. There's a lot of stuff in there!

One thing that caught my eye was the part about SMS. I get the impression that you believe SMS has a bright future, and you mentioned something about a feedback loop into the web.

I've been thinking that SMS will start to fade away as smart phones become more popular. Android alone is claiming 400,000 activations per day now, one would have to assume many of those are happening in the so-called 3rd world. Assuming further that these devices come with cheap data plans, what's the point of SMS?

I guess I have a hard time seeing where it will fit between twitter, facebook, and email. Especially given that people traditionally pay per message for SMS, or at least a sizable monthly charge for unlimited use. This is unheard of anywhere on the web, could you imagine people paying per tweet?! =)

Seems like a doomed business model to me. Am I missing something? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Christopher Butler | May 25, 2011 9:47 AM
John: Glad you enjoyed it. I'm definitely intrigued by what's being done with SMS—I had to show some restraint in not going on too much of a tangent with that topic, but it's one I'd like to look into more!

appdev: I hear what you're saying. I certainly don't begrudge any developer his or her livelihood, and know full well that principle alone doesn't keep cash flowing. If app work is what is keeping you busy, then so be it. My guess, though, is that it won't be a busyness that is sustained for very long (for all the reasons I mentioned).

But to your point about the app paradigm being already firmly entrenched, I, for one, am not so sure. The marketplace and platform divisions are enough to stymie real roots from being set. Meanwhile, the pace of the industry is problematic. The expectation of immediacy is unreasonable, and soon to be unmanageable. Take my anecdotal evidence for example: Every time I turn on my iPhone, the App Store icon has a number superimposed over it—indicating that apps I've already installed have available updates. Every time! What does this mean? It means two things, two things that tend to create an unending cycle. The first is haste, which, as the saying goes, creates waste. A rushed app will be buggy, which means it won't be the last version you download, assuming the perseverance of your patience with it. So that number over the App Store icon is saying, "hey, three more let's-try-this-agains." The other thing it means is the constant demand for more. In this case, more features. If the update isn't to patch a bug, it's to add a feature. After all, if the app doesn't keep offering more, what's to keep the user from losing interest? The competitive app landscape is brutal; designers and developers are up against adversity unmatched in other arenas—shorter release cycles, rampant bugginess, platform volatility, and of course, the fickle and easily-bored user.
appdev | May 24, 2011 10:56 PM
As a developer, I understand your point about apps in theory, but I think it's too little/too late. You said yourself there's an entire industry being built around them. So I've created a few apps and they've done OK, but I really don't have much choice but to keep taking app work as long as it's available.It used to be websites, now it's apps, someday it'll be something else.
BSmith | May 24, 2011 6:31 PM
(I don't usually do web comments, but...)

Articles like this one are exactly why I've come to depend on Newfangled for all things web and will keep coming back for more. Thanks.
John Kuefler | May 24, 2011 4:50 PM
Another very thoughtful article, Chris. Grounding your readers with the mobile context was excellent. I found it particularly insightful for us marketers to remember that while we need to be on top of the latest trends (like the smartphone app v. web debate), it's equally important to remember that a simple SMS promotion could potentially reach a much broader audience. The web is a work in is a work in process. Thanks for helping us all keep on top of it.
Christopher Butler | May 24, 2011 3:12 PM
Mike: I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'd love to hear more about your experience with responsive design. In particular, in what ways have you found them to be less than ideal performance-wise?

Alex: Thanks for the props. I can always count on a nice comment from you!

Scott: Thank you for reading!

Steve: Sounds like we've had similar iPad experiences. Oh well. I'm gratified to know that I took part in experiencing something that will be historically noteable—the first viable tablet. That said, I still stand by it as a reading device, provided I can't find the book in my library or at a used bookstore. My thing is that I typically just want to read the book, not own it.

As for the "web-app mode" phenomenon, I'm not sure. At first glance, I'm inclined to say that making an "impression" on a mobile user by having your app icon on their main screen, regardless of whether it gets used, just can't be valuable long-term. As for your other point about how your clients are engaging with content and/or communicating during their commute time, I'd love to see some survey data on that—in fact, I hastily created a poll (a deeply flawed one, I'm sure) on LinkedIn asking How do you use mobile devices on your commute? I'll check back in once there's some feedback there to discuss.
Steve Kieselstein | May 24, 2011 1:13 PM
Extremely interesting and thoughtful take Chris, thank you.

Your observation about "disappointment-you know, the kind that you deny for a while in order to avoid the sting of shame that comes from naive capitulation to undeserved hype" probably also describes my experience in having switched over to an iPad subscription to the New Yorker recently--great to start, less so when I realized I wasn't able to share the content with others the way I used to, which was half the enjoyment of the experience.

Would be interested in your thoughts on the so-called "web-app mode" phenomenon, which implies that the most valuable thing about having an app is sometimes simply the real estate its icon temporarily takes up on your client's "trifocal" mobile device's home screen. With clients (at least those who commute via mass transit or carpools) doing their main business and background reading on their ipads and iphones on their way in to work, this may be more important than it seems.
Scott Herbert | May 24, 2011 9:04 AM
Excellent article that clearly distills what's important and what's not. Thanks
Alex | May 23, 2011 7:25 PM
You've provided serious coverage and clear thinking (as usual) on something that is a big mess of a trend explosion. Anyone who thinks they've got their head around mobile stuff should settle down and read this.
Mike Mai | May 23, 2011 12:20 PM
Great write-up. I love my responsive designs but they are not ideal performance-wise, works best for blogs.

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