Apps, Operating Systems and Devices

6. December 2012 16:00 by Chris in dev  //  Tags: , , ,   //   Comments (5)

The ratios of devices accessing content over the Internet has changed significantly over recent years. The chiefly impacting form factor here is the smartphone, with Apple driving matters with the iPhone and Android taking over in market share terms, and there are other players who will continue to attempt to challenge the current market dominance of the ‘big 2’ with perhaps the best bet being Microsoft though, admittedly, they have failed to make any significant impact with Windows Phone 7.X. This may change if Microsoft manage some decent and cross pollinating marketing of Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone 8. I’m not holding my breath though. Hands up who knows the difference between WinRT and Windows RT, for example?

Anyway, each phone operating system and surrounding ecosystem has its strengths and weaknesses and I won’t enter into related discussions here. What I shall consider is the messy situation we have with ‘app’ development. The term ‘app’ has entered common parlance though I’m unsure what the shared understanding of the term actually is. Certainly this has been driven into the collective consciousness by Apple’s ‘AppStore’, and subsequently by the misleadingly named ‘Google Play’. Therefore ‘app’ refers to applications that are designed to be run on mobile devices – initially smartphones and then more recently on tablet devices such the iPad and the Nexus 7? Microsoft has jumped on the bandwagon with its similar Windows Phone Marketplace and, most recently, the Windows Store.

But ‘app’ just means application doesn’t it? So here each operating system has its own app store which delivers applications designed to be run on that operating system including, and this is key, a User eXperience consistence with the design values pertinent to the target device. Thus developers/ organisations, as part of their business model, may choose to target an individual platform for their application. If they have the right app each of the major platforms offers a significant market and this approach can work. The problem then comes if they wish to extend their market to other platforms – currently for the very best user experience they will need to develop that application in a quite different set of technologies which means that porting apps from one platform to another is expensive (I note that there are cross platform tools out there but, as far as I am aware, they remain largely unproven – see below).

Now switch to an alternate scenario of an organisation which is not targeting a platform but targeting an existing customer base and hence will find themselves in the situation of prioritising development of their apps for differing platforms. Take the example of a bank who wishes to produce an app for customer to perform account management. Why? Well for competitive advantage of course – to keep existing customers with them and to encourage new customers to them. They will need to produce and maintain multiple versions of the application for the different platforms: 2,3,4? Logically they would then continue to prioritise platforms based on the breakdown of their current/ targeted user base.

So, firstly is this situation any different from that with more traditional devices – Apple or Microsoft OS based desktop or laptop devices. Yes because the mobile nature of devices opens up so many more useful app scenarios and the app store concept has taken off. No in that as we had, and have, OS specific traditional client computing ‘apps’ – the solution was moving the applications to the web and to related cross platform technologies.

So there are two, related solutions to this problem area which is only going to get worse as the market further fractures with device form factors and operating systems:

  1. rather than having client applications specifically developed for each mobile OS let’s write them in HTML5 and related technologies. There has already been a bug push in the last 3years+ to push more and more functionality down to the client as devices became more powerful and this path offered more scalability than each client devices using significant computing resources. A caveat here – mobile devices offer significantly less computing resources than your desktop client, though this is changing quickly. Technology has a habit of doing this …
  2. rather than having client applications specifically developed for each mobile OS let’s write them in a generic fashion and rely more on using tools and technology to ‘translate’ these apps to work in a variety of client devices.

Or, probably, a bit of both. The downside? Well, there is device specific knowledge and trickery to ensuring optimal user experiences (particularly) in apps. Will the user experience be good enough for end users via cross-platform development solutions? I hope so. The current situation can’t be sustainable, can it?

Chris Sully
Technical Director, Propona

[first published:]


About the author

I am Dr Christopher Sully (MCPD, MCSD) and I am a Cardiff, UK based IT Consultant/ Developer and have been involved in the industry since 1996 though I started programming considerably earlier than that. During the intervening period I've worked mainly on web application projects utilising Microsoft products and technologies: principally ASP.NET and SQL Server and working on all phases of the project lifecycle. If you might like to utilise some of the aforementioned experience I would strongly recommend that you contact me. I am also trying to improve my Welsh so am likely to blog about this as well as IT matters.

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