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Smartphones are a huge success story of the past two decades – and the devices get more powerful each year. Many businesses achieve significant benefits by using mobile technology – including those in both industrial and commercial markets. Deploying applications to mobile users involves a unique set of challenges and choices.
This article provides a background on the current mobile technologies available.
Types of Application for Mobile
The fundamental consideration with delivering business applications over mobile phones is the huge number of devices, and the wide variety of features on these.
Successful mobile application development often involves a combination of technologies and techniques. This is where a diverse skill set, together with an understanding of the mobile landscape, is essential to provide businesses not only with development services but also effective guidance in this time of accelerating change. The challenges at this stage in mobile technology are mirrored by an ever-increasing range of opportunities for businesses to implement new and improved processes.
In general, there are two main approaches to delivering business solutions over mobiles:
The mobile Web has undergone enormous advances over the past few years. According to recent research, around a third of adults in the UK are now using a smartphone – it seems fairly safe to assume that this will only continue to increase. Many more mobile users have some kind of internet access. Although the functionality of mobile Web browsers is now at a good level, there are still considerable restrictions in terms of network connectivity and speed – this is expected to improve over the next couple of years as 4G kicks in, but for the moment remains a serious constraint.
Many organisations create mobile versions of their sites and Web services, with minimised content designed to cope with mobile hardware and data connectivity limitations. One potentially valuable prospect in the mobile Web will be the advance of HTML5. This technology is still very much under development, but with major sites such as the Financial Times opting to use it rather than targeting specific mobile platforms it does look very promising. HTML5 offers a range of benefits including facilities for offline support, multi-media, interactivity and location awareness.
(2) Mobile Apps
Native mobile applications are software solutions deployed directly onto devices such as phones. Many mobile applications link to internet services, with the application, or “app”, handling user interaction natively. Mobile apps have the advantage that they provide a deep level of interactivity that is suited to device hardware – for example, using gestures or sensors like GPS. The difficulty with using mobile applications to deliver business services is the range of platforms in operation. As of early 2011, Google, Apple and RIM together occupy around 90% of the smartphone market. However, the mobile landscape is still in a state of change and there are other players including Windows and Palm – it would be unwise to make any predictions about how market share will look even in a matter of months as things stand.
Microsoft have replaced the Windows Mobile system with Windows Phone 7, with an increased focus on consumer use. Although Microsoft currently has a reduced position in terms of smartphone market share, the upcoming Mango release is looking very promising, and is being received quite well in early testing.
In terms of technologies for mobile apps, the list is long, and depends on which platform (or platforms) you choose to target. Among the most commonly used programming languages for mobile applications are Java, Objective C and C++. Each of the major platforms has a specific Software Development kit, with its own tools to help with the design, testing, debugging and deployment.
The complexity of mobile application development is such that targeting even a single platform involves extensive testing. Some businesses maximise on development resources by balancing native user interaction with cross-platform resources at the back-end, in which case a mobile app can effectively function as an interface for a Web application.
Aside from targeting specific mobile platforms through software and Web development, there are additional ways to exploit mobile contexts for some business processes – SMS is one such case. In this model, services are delivered as SMS text messages. This has the benefit of generally working across all phones, and payment can be handled via users bills – but it’s a very limited form of interaction. SMS also has a problem that message delivery is not guaranteed. Integrating SMS message handling into Web applications is quite simple – and support for processing SMS messages from users is widely available.
Google’s Android operating system is going from strength to strength at the moment. Having initially been seen as a platform of interest mainly to geeks, Android now occupies around a third of smartphone market share. Android’s growth is partly down to the openness of the platform, which is available on phones across the market range and from various hardware manufacturers, making it accessible to a more diverse range of users than iPhone.
Apps available through the Android Market are also subject to very little control, which produces a great deal of variety and flexibility but naturally results in a higher proportion of poor quality applications in circulation.
Google’s approach is the opposite of Apple – which retains significant control over its mobile phone operating system. Google’s initial idea was to make a new phone operating system which would be open and free. Their hope was that this would encourage innovative development of both phones and applications. Google has invested in Android because it expected that Web searches would increasingly happen on mobiles, and it wanted to be able to advertise to mobile users.
The iPhone was of course in a dominant position as the advance of the smartphone took shape, and the platform is still in a very powerful place. Although business users naturally tended toward Blackberry in the past, both iPhone and Android have continued to make considerable headway for enterprise as well as consumer use, while Blackberry has started catering more to the consumer user as well. The result is that all three of the major smartphone platforms are now occupying some of the same space.
The iPhone offers support for external business utilities such as Microsoft Exchange and, unlike Android, iPhone apps are subject to serious vetting before users can deploy them. The natural downside to this increased level of control over the platform as a whole is a lack of flexibility, but for business applications the plus side is a very high guarantee of quality and reliability for the end user – and ultimately for any business processes being implemented through the technology.
With the hugely popular visual designs and interaction models the brand is famous for, the iPhone is certainly an attractive platform for commercial applications. Apple have been responsible for developing innovative features whose success has prompted other platforms to emulate them, such as multi-touch interaction.