The mobile future’s already here …

Cross-posted on the MITX blog

One of my favorite quotes is from the science fiction writer William Gibson. He once said, “The future’s already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”  I first grandly predicted the Year Of Mobile in 2000. Now, finally, there’s enough of it here that I can claim to be right.

What’s happening in mobile right now is exactly what happened during the stampede to the desktop web in 1995. Organizations are trying to force-fit existing content and transactions to meet the needs of a new use case. Unfortunately, in most instances, it’s not working. There are so many mobile–appropriate and even mobile-magical opportunities left on the table.

Social is the accelerant that’s igniting the mobile platform. It took AOL 9 years to get to one million users; it took Facebook 9 months, and it took Draw Something only 9 days. (Source) Mobile apps spread socially – brands need to figure out how their mobile experiences fit into that ecosystem, and how learned mobile behaviors, from gestural inference to game mechanics, provide opportunities to surf the social wave.

But on the technical front, figuring out what to do with mobile isn’t always easy. Developing for mobile elicits church and state decision points, like native app vs. mobile web. Both play an important role in the mobile ecosystem. However, the advent of HTML 5 is helping to address this. Better HTML support in native apps allows for faster/cheaper native app creation for both smartphones and tablets. The “hybrid” approach of injecting HTML5 code into native allows developers to do both effectively. And of course browser-based apps can be made more compelling. Check out Facebook at http://m.facebook.com/ on iPhone/iPad’s Safari web browser and compare it to Facebook iPhone app and iPad app experiences, for example.

Another emerging religious issue is responsive design vs. RESS (responsive endpoint with server-side adaptation). Responsive design addresses a fundamental challenge that everyone’s facing today: how to serve the growing variety of physical form factors of end-user devices. Responsive design assumes that all users on all devices want the same content, just formatted differently. That’s not always true; if you’re walking down the street looking at an iPhone for a few seconds, do you really want to see everything served up to a user sitting in front of a large-screen desktop? In contrast, RESS does more of the work server-side, and offers customized (and reduced) content for different form factors.

What’s next for mobile?

First, analyst firms report that in just a few years the number of mobile devices will dwarf the number of personal computers. We see it anecdotally with the devices students bring to university each fall, and we see it as mobile-first behaviors are reflected in our site analytics and app download numbers. This will be a wake-up call for organizations used to thinking of mobile as discrete apps or afterthoughts.

Second, the steep innovation and adoption trajectories mean that generations just a few years apart are having very different experiences with mobile. We’ve all seen the video of the baby trying to make the print magazine behave like the iPad – and who knows what her little brother will expect? So the rapidly growing and rapidly changing experience of mobile will be yet another way consumer behaviors drive seismic shifts in the enterprise. In the mobile near-future, we may see a more seamless interaction with things and people around us, compared with the relatively clunky and interruptive way we “check in” today. Tablets are already changing how people – especially senior ones — access and share information in business meetings, too.

So, “mobile first and mobile everywhere” is where we’re headed. It took me a decade, but just like that stopped watch, the prediction was finally right.

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