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Mobile Web vs. Mobile Apps

Mobile Developer Live Event Explores the Complexities of Mobile Development

When it comes to application development for mobile devices, complexity abounds. “Code once, run anywhere” is a foreign concept. There are thousands of browser and device types to accommodate, plus unresolved connectivity and caching issues to contend with. We’re on our 5th generation of HTML, with WML, XHTML and cHTML still breathing. And a constellation of platforms including Java ME, BREW, Objective C for Apple devices, Linux-based Android, and a few dozen others are in play.

To help examine the implications of these issues and more, Keynote brought together two panels of industry experts at Mobile Developer Live event in Silicon Valley for a two-part discussion of current issues in mobile development. The uniquely mobile-focused event was attended by a wide range of professionals from the Silicon Valley development community, and Manny Gonzalez, senior director of technology at Keynote Systems, served as moderator for both sessions.

The first panel was tasked with exploring current strategies and trends in mobile Web development. Panelists represented diverse perspectives and included Michael Ahearn, VP of Marketing and Communications at iLoop Mobile, which provides technology and services for mobile marketing, advertising and content delivery; Slawomir Ligier, VP of Consumer Authentication at VeriSign; and Aiman Abedi, Senior Mobile Software Engineer at Keynote.

The second session took the question up a level, tackling the trade-offs between mobile Web applications and their on-device counterparts and what benefits these two development strategies have to offer.

The second panel included Zvika Ashkenazi, Founder and CEO of MobileAppLoader, a marketplace for developers to post and sell customizable application templates to businesses. Steve Haney, Vice President of Americas at Mobile Distillery was also on hand. Mobile Distillery solutions focus on development and porting of client-side apps to diverse handsets. Paul Stanley, Director of Product at online coupon company Cellfire brought a marketer’s perspective to the mix, and Eric Fruhinsholz, Mobile Development Manager weighed in from Keynote Systems.

Mobile Web – What’s Holding it Back?
Why has it taken mobile Web usage so long to catch on? And why does the industry still lack a single strategy for optimized mobile Web design?

According to Ahearn, the two biggest barriers to mobile Web traction have been connection speed and the lack of handsets capable of delivering a worthwhile Web experience for users.

He sees hope, however, in the form of better browser technologies and 3G networks, citing that among iPhone users (who he feels enjoy the most sophisticated and satisfying Web experience), 85% surf the Web daily — indicating that if you build the right interface, they will come. He also notes that engineers are learning to design specifically for the mobile Internet and are no longer “just forcing HTML into a handset.” Particularly among entertainment publishers, he says, “we’re seeing some amazing sites… fast, fun and compelling,” and able to leverage all the benefits of the handset.

Ligier notes additional forces at work. “Mobile Web is not cheap,” he says, and he sees carrier pricing and the proliferation of devices as contributing to the slow pace of mobile Web growth and adoption. “People buy a new iPhone and find that it’s actually cheap compared to their plan.”

Do We Need Two Webs?
Will there always be two Web silos? The desktop Web and the mobile Web? And do businesses need a different presence on each?

The panel consensus in general was that convergence will continue in many ways, but that there will always be differences in how people experience the Web from these two launch points. For example, mobile’s geolocation capabilities enable a wide array of mobile Web applications and services that are irrelevant on a desktop.

“The Web will be the Web,” says Ligier, who already sees the mobile Web experience getting closer to desktop browsing. “Screen resolutions, capabilities and speed are all getting better, and the technical differences are lessening, but we’re not there today… browsing on a Blackberry still isn’t fun.” And from a  security perspective, he sees no difference. “The security issues are the same, and people already tend to overlook security on the mobile Web.”

From an engineering viewpoint, Abedi sees screen size as the regulating factor. “There will always be two different experiences, even with the same content,” he notes.

And for Ahearn, the question really comes back to the user experience. Technology aside, what is the site’s value to the consumer, and what’s the fastest way to get them to it? 

“The Internet is the Internet,” he says, but how the content is used and what consumers want to do with it will always be a bit different in the mobile space. Consumers will never use their handsets to browse massive libraries of information, for example. But watching full-stream films? He says it’s coming fast, as the entertainment sector finds ways to push its most engaging content into the mobile realm.

Tools and Trends
Device and platform proliferation, coding standards, testing ubiquity, caching capabilities — these are all issues that, according to the panel, are gradually finding resolution in the mobile Web world, either via the ingenuity of the development community or market drivers.

For example, mobile Web developers have more tools available now to deal with the wide diversity of devices out there, and the W3C Mobile Web Initiative continues to drive best practices and standards for those devices.

Ahearn is a proponent of developing to the objective and not the device, designing the right interface for the right use, then let “black box” solutions do the heavy lifting of device detection and testing. He says iLoop resolves device compatibility for its clients with just such a solution, identifying device profile information associated with each ping and automatically serving the right data and format for the device.

The panel also welcomed the array of emerging caching techniques and technologies — tools to enable smooth online/offline application performance despite frequent service disruptions common to mobile connections. Abedi noted new caching capabilities in HTML5. And Ahearn remarked that the film industry, for whom seamless content delivery is particularly crucial, is driving big improvements in this area.

But while mobile Web usage and development practices show signs of maturation, developers, publishers and businesses are still faced with another fundamental question when it comes to distributing applications for mobile use. Should I develop for the mobile Web, or develop for the mobile device? The second panel of experts at Mobile Developer Live was asked to address this topic.

Client vs. Cloud
Visit Apple’s red-hot iPhone application store online, and you can browse a dizzying array of mobile tools for just about every aspect of home, work and play, all downloadable to your beloved iPhone. Want your device to lead you back to the car you parked hours ago? There’s an app for that. Want to download your own personal yoga instructor? There’s an app for that, too. These kinds of downloadable, on-device applications offer the ability to fully exploit the sexiest device features and deliver a rich and rewarding user experience. But for publishers who want to reach a broad-spectrum audience, client-side apps demand far more resources to develop, test and maintain than do their Web-based cousins.

The cloud vs. client question isn’t new — it exists in the desktop world as well. But the issues around each development strategy are different in the mobile industry.

VeriSign provides a cogent example. Bringing the company’s proven authentication and security solutions to the mobile world hasn’t been an easy road. According to Ligier, the company has Java ME developers to cover most platforms, but it must also have teams in place for Objective C and Windows Mobile. “I’d love to have something to make code for all these devices, but I haven’t found it yet,” he states. “And our application is actually quite simple. For people with more complex apps, it’s a really big challenge.” Ligier notes that VeriSign is continually exploring alternative deployment strategies, such as embedding its solutions right on the SIM card.

What consumer companies like Cellfire want, as Stanley puts it, is “the cheapest route to ubiquity.” Reaching their target consumers in volume and excluding as few as possible is critical to Cellfire’s merchant customers, making WAP highly appealing. But that’s not to say that user experience isn’t important. Coupon clippers are used to scanning glossy, graphics-rich Sunday inserts, so ideally a handheld version would offer high-quality graphics that are easily browsed and efficiently rendered. Cellfire thus has chosen to develop for a wide range of platforms to enable the best graphics performance. It has struggled, however, to find the best balance of reach and richness, adopting and then abandoning a middleware layer that at once simplified coding yet limited functionality. The trade-off is one Cellfire revisits frequently. “It’s not an easy question – mobile will never be easy,” says Stanley.

Developing for myriad devices is just part of the client-side challenge. There’s also testing to think about. While there are sound automated solutions and services (Keynote’s among them) for testing mobile Web site performance against thousands of handset types, no “silver bullet” exists for client-side applications. Most developers utilize an imperfect mix of automated systems and human testing to check compatibility. It remains time-consuming and not exactly DIY-friendly for most businesses. 

To Haney at Mobile Distillery, whose tools serve the client-side mobile development market, the Web is just another platform among many. His business is built around simplifying native application development by enabling developers to automatically adapt source code to the hardware and porting parameters of a wide range of devices.

From his perspective, it’s not an either/or question. “You can’t get as close to the metal using a Web app — you need a native application to get all the functionality the device offers.” Better distribution channels (like the iPhone store) and lower porting costs are to him signals that both approaches will remain viable. To him, the “code once” mentality of the desktop Web world simply doesn’t apply in the mobile world.

Fruhinsholz concurs that for functionality, Web applications don’t today give users access to the full range of features they want from their handsets, such as Bluetooth connectivity or camera features. He sees that changing, but today their advantage lies primarily in management simplicity.

Peaceful Coexistence
“We’re going to have both no matter what,” says Ashkenazi, who notes that most applications will actually have components of both development approaches, with at least a small on-device “bridge” to the Web application. 

And no one on the panel sees ubiquity or major device consolidation as coming any time soon. According to Stanley, the overproliferation of handsets has some very entrenched drivers, especially in the U.S. They include fashion, retail channels and carriers attempting to differentiate their offerings, and marketers seeking to target every part of the demand spectrum. Fragmentation will thus continue to be a fact of development life for the foreseeable future.

For now, consumers, developers, marketers and publishers face trade-offs. And carrier improvements, device improvements, and enhanced mobile Web sophistication and standards will continue to shape the decisions they’ll make.

Today, the Web offers easy access for mobile consumers with mediocre but improving usability, plus a generally simpler development and distribution path. Native apps get every ounce of coolness out of the latest handset technologies, yet they present headaches from a development, testing and distribution standpoint. So for now, you’ll find them both. In fact, you’ll find them both at the iPhone app store.

You can download and listen to this and more Mobile Developer Live events, including audience Q&A, at the Keynote Webcast Center.

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