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Friday 8th April 2016

Businesses Need to 'Think Mobile' to Be Mobile

If you're a regular reader of No Jitter or really any tech site, surely you've noticed that mobile has been a red-hot theme over the past few years. Along with cloud, mobility dominated last month's Enterprise Connect event, and I expect it to be at least as big a topic at the upcoming RSA and Interop shows. Mobile has definitely become the new black, and it seems every business is trying to figure out how to be more mobile.

From the conversations I've had with line-of-business managers, IT leaders, and application developers, I believe few really understand what being mobile really means. Most of what we call "mobile" today is actually just "mini." What I mean by that is the majority of mobile applications are just small form factor versions of desktop applications.

Sure, apps that run on mobile phones have come a long way, and most vendors have done a great job of optimizing screen space and improving usability from older versions. Functionality, however, hasn't really changed much over the years. We do see handfuls of pure, uniquely mobile consumer applications, such as those providing augmented reality, but business applications have a long way to go.
Desktop Tendencies

The biggest issue with mobility today is that application developers think desktop first when they need to be thinking mobile. I think about this in context of conversations I recently had with Microsoft developers. Following a talk on mobile apps I gave to them toward the end of last year, I had a chance to speak with many of them about the challenges of building mobile applications.

More often than not, the developers pointed to difficulties of working with a small screen size, no keyboard, and limited processing capabilities. Rather than focusing on the challenges, what the developers should be thinking about are the unique attributes of a mobile device. Most mobile phones have a compass, GPS, touch screen, location information, and a sense of the user's identity. Desktop applications have none of these things.

By tapping into all of the various data types available via the smartphone, mobile apps can be so much more predictive in nature than their desktop counterparts. Consider your experience as a traveler using online and mobile apps.

When you pull up an airline website on a PC, you see options such as book a flight and check flight status. Once you log in, you might get additional options, such as a prompt to check in if you have an upcoming flight within the next 24 hours. At this point, your experience with the airline's mobile app is pretty much the same. Developers have likely optimized the mobile app for touch, but otherwise probably haven't done much to differentiate between the full browser version and the mobile app.

They're missing an opportunity to think mobile first.

If you're at the airport and use the airline's mobile app, it should take action based on location data -- pushing your mobile boarding pass to you along with updated gate and flight status letting you know which security line has the shortest queue, and showing you where the nearest lounge is. Alternatively, with a little bit of integration with other providers, the app could tell you about parking options or, based on past food preferences, recommend where to eat before boarding.

After landing, that same app should serve up directions on how to get to your connecting gate or to the correct baggage claim carousel. Again, with a bit of integration with other providers, the app also could assist you with hotel check-in or tell you where to find your spot in the rental car lot.

This can easily extend to business-to-business applications as well. For example, if your phone is in motion when you're scheduled to join a virtual meeting, then the app automatically launches a voice-only connection for you. If your phone has been stationary for a period of time, then the app initiates a video call.
Mobile Before All

The key to building applications that are uniquely mobile is to think mobile first. Developers must put themselves in the user's situation, and consider likely use cases in certain scenarios, and then figure out how to streamline or automate those tasks.

Thinking mobile is akin to what developers went through with the development of the Web. In the early days of the Web, developers always focused on the desktop version of applications and customer interfaces and then retrofitted those for the Web. Today the Web is the norm, so almost every developer understands how to "think Web."

I believe the same transition needs to happen with mobile apps. Business leaders, IT executives, and developers must get in the habit of looking through a mobile-first lens. Only then will the industry shift away from mini applications to apps that are uniquely mobile.