With just a single mobile release under my belt now, I’m hardly what you might call an expert on the subject. What I can say for certain is the past year has been an eye opener in terms of understanding the capabilities and limitations of mobile platforms in general.
So having gone from “reading about” to “doing” mobile development, these are some of the “aha” moments I’ve had:
Design for Mobile First
The biggest revelation: Even if you’re not setting out to develop a mobile application, your design absolutely must start from the point of view of a handheld.
Think about it for a second – how much information can you fit on a 3.5″ screen? Not much! So when you design for that form factor you have to go through a savage trimming exercise – everything from type, to layout, to navigation must communicate their intent in as tiny a space as possible. In other words, there’s no avoiding the need to effectively communicate your message.
When you build all of your applications this way, mobile or not, it’s hard not to come up with a user experience that has laser focus and goes straight for the mark. Once you have a bare minimum experience, now you can augment it with additional navigation and information (including advertising) for larger form factors like desktop and tablets.
Don’t Fret the Framework
Most of the new devices coming onto the market have more than enough memory and processing horsepower to handle the massive extra overhead incurred through cross-platform development tools. If you’re starting a new project or iterating a prototype, don’t hesitate to jump on board a tool that will get you to a product faster. This is one of those areas where the short term gain is worth the longer term pain…
We’ve known since the 80s, when developers had to release to a boatload of PC platforms – IBM, Commodore, Amiga, Tandy, etc – that software written directly for a particular platform outperforms and outsells similar software written for a generic platform and ported across to others. The same idea is definitely the case now, even though our cross-platform tools are far more advanced, and our globally-usable app much higher in quality that what we could produce 30 years ago.
Some of the compelling reasons why you would want to take on the expense of building, testing and maintaining you app natively:
- The UI of your application will integrate seamlessly into the underlying operating system – iOS widgets look like they belong, Android layouts are laid out consistently compared to other applications
- Raw speed – you don’t need to go through someone else’s API shim to get at the underlying operating system features, you don’t have to develop custom native code since all the code is native; all CPU cycles are devoted to your application, resulting in much higher performance, particularly for graphic-intensive applications
- Operating system features – each mobile operating system has its own paradigm and set of best practices which cross-platform tools gloss over to give you as a developer a consistent response. So your application misses the subtleties of the user’s hardware experience – for example Android uses Activities as its interaction model, but the Adobe Air framework squashes that instead of forcing developers to program in an Activity-centric way
In other words, cross-platform tools exist in order to give developers the best experience, not to give the user the best experience. Your customer doesn’t care if your app is available on Android, Windows, iPhone, Playbook and WebOS if all they have is an iPhone.
I believe cross-platform tools are the best way to get your project off the ground and usable fast, but right from the beginning you need to be thinking about converting your application to native code in order to optimize the experience for your customers.
I bought an Android phone and have been enjoying developing for it. But I don’t think I would enjoy developing for Android at large because of the massive amount of devices and form factors I would need to support. This is where Apple has an edge – although the learning curve for Objective-C is higher, once I have an iOS application, I know it will run on an iPod Touch, and iPhone or and iPad. Not only that, but my guess is people are more likely to want to spend small amounts of money on app purchases, since they’ve been trained to do so from years of iTunes.
Moving to the web was a huge advantage in terms of software support because if you ever found a bug in your program you could patch it and release it without affecting any of your users. No one has to upgrade a web page.
This isn’t true of mobile applications – ignoring mobile web applications – once someone downloads your app they may be slow to upgrade to newer verions, or they may never upgrade at all. This means any bugs that get released with your bundle are going to remain in the wild forever. If you have any kind of server-based presence, your server code needs to handle requests from all of those old app versions – so you need to make sure you get it right, and have good filtering and upgrade mechanisms in place.
Choosing a Platform
So if you don’t have a smartphone, go get one – it will change your life, or at least the way you interact with your phone. Then start building apps for it. That’s all it takes to get into the game. Don’t wait another second.