As with many mobile events, there was much discussion at the recent at MEF Americas conference over which devices and platforms firms should develop mobile applications for. It’s a challenge that many firms face – Tribal included – but this was the first event at which these conversations had a greater sense of relevance to me… The normal pre-occupation with ‘how to attract new customers’ (often the focus for conferences attended by start-up businesses) had been replaced with ‘how to address an existing user community through mobile’.
It’s a challenge many established businesses face and changes the dynamics of the decision-making process. When considering a pre-existing group of customers (or students, or employees…) smartphone ownership (both actual ownership and types owned) varies widely and, however important our service is to that group, it will only be one factor amongst many in an individual’s choice of device. We may choose just to offer the extra benefits of an app – for example – to iPhone owners (as many banks did initially), but if we need to address all (or most) of a pre-existing group we will need to factor this variety into our solution accordingly.
This was a theme I discussed with Steve Schwinke from OnStar – a long-established provider of in-car safety and navigation technology for US markets. See highlights of our conversation in the video below:
During our conversation Steve highlighted 2 key points:
1. The Impact of Ecosystems
The move from ‘platforms’ to ‘ecosystems’ is now clear to see in consumer electronics. Originally MP3 players would just synchronise content from a PC… Now they are replaced by smartphones which include ways to purchase media and stream content to / from other devices. Consumer electronic devices no-longer exist in isolation and device manufacturers, media owners and network providers find themselves co-operating and competing in unexpected ways.
Vehicles are no different. Integration started with an ‘iPod connector’ for audio then added hands-free phone calling and now smartphone apps can utilise in-vehicle displays. OnStar – who built a business on providing in-vehicle hardware for safety and navigation – must now adapt to both operate with others’ apps and to extend OnStar’s features to mobile devices.
It’s quite a challenge, but it’s not unique to in-vehicle technology. At Tribal we’re already thinking about the impact of students using their own connected devices to learn in and away from the classroom, ensuring educators retain the same level of information about progress as if face-to-face.
2. Choosing a technology platform
In my last post I praised SMS’s ubiquity across all mobile phones. However, systems often require more complex interaction than SMS offers so an app (and choosing a platform for that app) is unavoidable. ‘Native’ applications offer speed and flexibility whilst web-based solutions are portable but more limited – it’s often a close call on a pure technical cost / benefit comparison.
However, in OnStar’s case the decision needed to consider wider factors… Without an established developer community existing knowledge, transferable skills, availability of tools and best practice all needed to be factored into creating what is effectively a new platform. For Steve Schwinke this was a simple choice, “HTML5 was a no-brainer”. The skills and technologies already exist and – crucially – as it matures many believe HTML5 and its successors will ultimately replace native code.
It’s a similar decision we’ve made at Tribal Labs recently… Developing cross-platform mobile apps for clients with diverse user-bases across many demographics and geographies, we have to factor in far more than just development cost and performance so are increasingly turning to mobile web (and hybrids). Unlike OnStar we don’t get to control the end user hardware, but in building tools to fit existing eco-systems many of the considerations are the same.