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What impact do the varying platforms have on app developers?

From consumers to marketing directors, mobile is the word on everyone’s lips at the moment. And it’s not difficult to see why - it’s estimated that by 2014, mobile devices will have overtaken PCs. Mobile devices are not only more portable – they’re more personal and customisable too. Living in people’s pockets, they provide the ultimate communications platform. With mobile comes a wealth of almost limitless opportunity for brands to get straight to the heart of consumers and ultimately increase brand engagement.

But is developing a mobile marketing strategy worth the time, effort and investment for companies? Does mobile live up to the hype? How much impact can a killer app make?
The Drum caught up with leading agencies in the world of app development and mobile strategy, posing a series of questions to discover just what it is that’s got people talking, and why developing such a strategy might not be just prudent – but actually essential for the future of your brand.

Gemma Oversby, Head of Business Development, Storm ID
First thing to note is that even when developing for a single platform you need to be aware of the growing number of OS versions and the increasingly fragmented landscape of the devices running that OS. This alone presents a challenge to the developer. Then, yes, you often need to also answer the question of how to deliver to multiple platforms and how to maintain these over the lifespan of the app.

It is this range of problems that often tempts developers to create a mobile web app rather than a native app. This can often be a good idea from a development perspective but please do not think it will make all the problems go away, and will it make for a great product?

In the first instance you still need to work hard to make the app feel right on different devices – there is no standard UI across platforms. You then still need to test across devices. You may be able to fix bugs in your system in one place but you still have to check the rendering and performance on each device in turn. Finally, you succeed in making your mobile web app look like a native app across devices – hooray – but your users will feel the difference immediately. The more your mobile web app looks like a native mobile app the more they will make the comparison – and that means your app will feel like the poor cousin...does anyone want that associated with their brand? No, didn’t think so.

So we would recommend using mobile web apps where appropriate but not using them as a one-size-fits-all solution for mobile app development. When it comes to developing native apps for multiple platforms, do not be fooled by the promises of development frameworks which offer to code once and target all platforms. That promise turns out to be too good to be true. Really basic apps can be delivered this way but you will pay the price in terms of quality of the resultant solution for anything else. Initial cost savings will be lost and you will have a messy codebase and a handful of poor apps to show for it. You have been warned. I would recommend using the best technology and tools available to deliver apps for each platform. You get the best results and it is not as expensive as you’d think if:

  • You deliver one app first
    This lets you solve all the main UX problems for mobile use and gain initial feedback from users on this app. Do a bit of research, select a preferred OS and then targeting the 10% of the devices that 90% of your audience use.
  • You translate your UI but do not change your UX
    This ensures you have no new edge cases in your flows so your test scripts can be used across all platforms.You share the same back end servicesSharing the same APIs, datastore, user accounts, etc offers huge time savings across a suite of apps
  • To pull this off try to work with an agency that can provide backend web services and can create apps for multiple platforms – it will mean a cheaper better solution.

Graeme Hastings, Creative Director, Science Creative Ltd
Android (Google) and iOS (Apple) currently cover the vast majority of the market; however even within Android, developers have to account for a vast array of handset hardware. With Apple we just have to worry about one handset, the iPhone. With Nokia and Microsoft teaming up on ‘Windows Phone’ there are further platforms that could potentially become major players. It is also expected that Blackberry will add support for Android to boost the apps available on their platform. Remember mobile is not just smartphones, Tablets are making design more complex by adding a further range of screen sizes to design the user interface for, they are also introducing additional app platforms (HP for example have their Palm derived webOS).

Richard Carter, Digital Director, Bolser
People constantly talk about just iOS and Android but there are many other operating systems and manufacturers in the mobile market so there's always newer devices arriving on the scene. Fragmentation across mobile handsets has always been a problem for developers and businesses long before the iPhone appeared. We’ve built multi-platform apps across iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Nokia, which is where we really start to see development costs rapidly increase.

The only real solution to this constant fragmentation is to move to adopting mobile web solutions. Then you have a centralised solution, easily adapted for different devices, no requirement on app stores, approvals etc. and ultimately control of your own destiny. With the use of HTML5 and CSS3 and mobile jScript libraries compelling interfaces on par with an app experience can be adopted. A great example of this is The Financial Times web app app.ft.com. It's a real showcase of what can be achieved.

Ste Brennan, Code Computerlove
There is little doubt that Android is seen as the operating system that will win from a marketshare point of view. Apple will still lead in terms of consumer desirability with its strong integrated user experience expertise. However, Android and Apple are not the only players. Blackberry are still in there and it will be interesting to see how Nokia's exclusivity with Microsoft will affect the market. To complicate even further, not only does each operating system have a different development environments, you have to be aware of the differences between devices running on the same operating system. Do you develop an iPhone app, a dedicated iPad app or a universal iOS app? Same applies for Android. The sheer diversity of devices running Android complicates what platforms to target even further.

What this highlights is how important it is to understand what your target audience are using. Why build for Android when you know your core target audience are predominantly Apple? True, this will not always be so easy and there are times that you would need a campaign to hit as many devices as possible to get the largest possible reach. In this instance, you need to prioritise one device platform and port to other platforms accordingly.

It'll be interesting to see how sustainable the current multi-platform app development approach is. Certainly there is a market for cross platform development technologies to flourish such as Adobe's Flash Platform, Appcelerator's Titanium X, Ansca's Corona as well as HTML5 based apps and technologies that can wrap HTML5 based apps into "native apps" such as PhoneGap. All of which may ease the investment and time required to hit as many devices as possible.

Simon Jones, Head of Online, Intermarketing
Whilst iOS and Android are certainly taking the lead, let’s not forget the once giant of mobile handsets, Nokia. Nokia has now agreed a partnership deal with Microsoft. More work again for app developers if Nokia can gain a bigger slice of the smartphone market.

Peter Dolukhanov, Joint Managing Director – Technology & Operations, Nice Agency
App Developers need to have a solid understanding of the current mobile landscape in terms of devices and convergent platforms offering write-once, run-anywhere application development. Developers should have a toolkit of technologies and apply the best solution around the client’s needs – would a native iOS, multi-screen Adobe AIR or PhoneGap HTML5 application be more suitable for your customer’s needs? There is also an implication for mobile application design, as the User Experience and Visual Design of multi-screen application requires knowledge of the design paradigms of each native platform.

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