Are Millennials Changing the Way We Sell?

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In short, yes.

It’s a common thinking these days that millennials aren’t buying. They’re much more free spirited than past generations- so we assume they aren’t trying to settle down and buy homes. While I’m sure this can be true of some young people, generalizations like this can be dangerous. It can be the difference between having future clients and not. The facts behind whether or not millennials are buying doesn’t support the trope that “millennials don’t want to buy homes”.

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Another peek at the future of mobile

One of my favorite writers covering the mobile space, Kevin Tofel at Gigaom, discovered a new Chrome experiment last night that lets you explore J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle-Earth fantasy kingdom in “A Journey Through Middle Earth“.

What’s so amazing about the app? As pointed out on the Chromium blog, it’s written using only HTML, CSS and JavaScript for viewing in a browser. You can check out the app by going to http://middle-earth.thehobbit.com using any device with the Chrome browser – desktop, laptop, tablet or phone. Below is a sneak peek at what you’ll see when you go there:

What I love about these “experiments” is that it shows the power of the web and what’s possible using web-based standards. The beauty is that the site works across platforms, meaning I can view the site on a desktop, tablet, and a mobile device and get the same experience.

We will undoubtedly continue to see significant advances in web technologies that continue to close the gap between web and native applications. If you check out the app above on your phone, you will notice some of the inherent limitations in web graphics (how they were done is explained here), but if you compare it to the quality of web graphics on a mobile device from a year ago, it’s come a long way.

I’m also convinced that these Google experiments are part of their ultimate goal of combining Android and Chrome under the Chrome OS. I think it’s just a matter of time before we see a phone (and tablet) with Chrome as its primary operating system. Android apps will run in an emulation environment within the OS, similar to what BlackBerry is doing in OS10. I view Google’s recent announcement of ART, a new Android runtime that was released with KitKat, as the underpinnings of this new emulation environment that will come to Chrome.

Google’s latest Chromium “experiment” is just another reason why we focus our efforts on developing for the mobile web. In my view, it creates superior and longer lasting value for our customers than developing for the closed ecosystems of iOS, Android, Windows Phone and others.

Mobile Web or Native App: The Debate Continues

In addition to the debate between responsive web design (RWD) and dedicated mobile websites, which I discussed last week, another great mobile debate is the choice between developing a mobile web application/site or a native application. As with all great debates, this is not an either/or decision. Just like the RWD versus dedicated mobile website issue, it requires analyzing the desired goals and outcomes and choosing the right tool for the job.

Why do we have native apps?

In order to understand and frame the debate, it’s important to understand how we got here by understanding why mobile apps exist.

When the original iPhone was launched in 2007, native apps were not part of the plan. The original plan was to have all third party applications run through the browser over the web. Unfortunately, there were a number of issues that developers ran into when they tried to write feature-rich, web-based mobile applications:

  • Network speed
    In 2007, wireless providers were still filling out their 3G footprints and improving capacity. For example, AT&T’s network went through a lot of growing pains, which I’m sure early iPhone users still painfully remember. Network limitations made access to apps difficult and had a large impact on performance.
  • Web features and capabilities
    Web technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3 were still in their infancy at that time and not fully baked nor supported consistently across mobile browsers. Plus, access to phone hardware and offline capability, didn’t exist or weren’t ready for prime-time.
  • Access to hardware and operating system
    In order to maintain security, the mobile phone and OS manufacturers closed off access to the hardware and operating system features.
  • Screen sizes
    Native apps were the best way to make use of the small of amount of available screen real estate on those first smartphones.

So why build for the mobile web?

If native apps have these inherent advantages, why would one want to build a mobile website or mobile web application? Well, a lot of the limitations that native apps addressed have been resolved over the last five years. Carriers have upgraded their networks to be more reliable, offer better coverage, and, with LTE, provide much higher speeds. Web standards have evolved and are supported across mobile platforms, and they continue to get better every day. Some of the latest advancements in the standards are providing developers with better access to hardware features such as the camera, accelerator and gyroscope, and graphics capabilities. Screens have also evolved, and while screen real estate is still at a premium in mobile, the average screen size has grown over an inch from 3.5″ to close to 5″ with high definition resolutions of up to 1080p on some models.

With these limitations solved, there are some inherent advantages that the mobile web has over native applications:

  • Discovery
    Instead of having to sift through the native app stores, discovering a mobile website or application can be done using standard web searches, which consumers are very familiar with. Common SEO techniques and practices can be used to make sure your mobile web presence ranks properly, and you aren’t subjected to the promotion practices and policies of the controlled and curated app stores. In addition, as more people use Siri, Google Now, and other voice search systems, which are geared toward crawling the web, there’s a better chance that someone will find your mobile web presence through a voice search.
  • APIs and data mashups
    Using web standards and open APIs, it can be easier to create richer applications by sharing data via web services and to migrate between devices and platforms. Native applications, on the other hand, are more likely to store data locally, which makes it harder to interact with other services and to upgrade or change between devices and platforms, creating a lock-in effect for the end user.
  • Cost and efficiency
    Since HTML5 is well supported across mobile browsers, mobile web solutions can be built once and immediately distributed across all platforms – iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. There is no need to go through the cost of developing for each mobile platform or of waiting for the approval of each app store. Also, if new platforms emerge, such as FireFox OS or Ubuntu, there’s a much better chance that your application will be available on these platforms with little or no change required.

So does the general public care?

The answer is no. The user really doesn’t care whether the app is web or native. They just want to access information or complete their task  in the most efficient way possible. The people who care most about the mobile web versus native debate are the hardware/software manufacturers and developers, each of which have a vested interest in the discussion. Therefore, depending on what is best for their well being, that is the side that they are likely to push.

How should you decide what to do?

To get you started, I would suggest looking at the four primary activities that people perform online as outlined in a 2012 Pew Research Report:

  • Accessing information
    If the primary goal of your mobile presence is information access, then a web-based strategy works best. The primary reason is for discovery and updating. You’ll want to make sure that people can easily find and access your latest and greatest content without having to worry about it being buried in an app store.
  • Learning
    If your site is geared toward learning, I would recommend a mobile web first strategy since it will be the easiest way for people to find and access your information. However, if you’re doing a lot of static course-based material, such as a university course, a native app may allow you to create a more specific, richer learning interface using a dedicated piece of hardware, such as a tablet.
  • Entertainment
    Typically, this will be better in a native app interface because you can get deeper access to the hardware and operating system to better utilize the graphics, video and audio capabilities of the device. It will also be easier to monetize your entertainment or gaming app through the app store than it will be over the web since users are generally conditioned to pay for this type of content. However, for simpler projects where monetization is not important, a web-based approach may work better.
  • Content Creation
    For creating content, I’d recommend a native app. Again, there may be some web-based tools, but content creation can be very challenging on a mobile device. Therefore, it is recommended that you develop a native app that makes usage of the guidelines and input methods of the operating system and the hardware.

Overall, the best advice I can give is to determine why users want to access your content on a mobile device, what actions or goals the user wants to accomplish, and what goals and outcomes you want to achieve from your mobile presence (visits, leads, sales, etc). Then decide which platform, web or native, works best.

In conclusion

The simplest answer to the web versus native debate is that you should always start out designing for the mobile web, since you have control over that presence and it is where the majority of people will start their search. Then you can evaluate whether a native app will help you to further achieve your mobile goals.

However, there are a few exceptions to the mobile web first rule. If you fall into one of the following categories, I would suggest going native as your primary mobile presence:

  1. High performance gaming
    HTML5 graphics capability has come a long way, but to get the best performance from your game, you’ll want direct access to a phone’s graphics hardware and any acceleration capabilities, which are more reliably accessed through a native application.
  2. High engagement/repetitive-task based apps
    If your application is something a user will make use of everyday, or multiple times a day, then a native app is the way to go. The most compelling reason is that native applications support push notifications, even when the app isn’t running. This allows you to alert users to new messages, send them reminders, or otherwise keep them engaged.
  3. Enterprise applications
    If you’re building a dedicated application that will be used solely by your business and its employees on a daily basis, then a native app would make the most sense. It will be easier to justify the investment in the native technology, it will provide your IT with control over the hardware, and you’ll be able to control the user experience. You will also get the benefit of being able to design a more secure application.

No matter what your specific case is, be comforted in knowing that the mobile web is not going away anytime soon, and neither are native apps. Both have there place in mobile and will continue to co-exist over the long-term. When deciding what to do, identify what your goals and desired outcomes are, and then choose the right tool for the job.

And if you need help, feel free to contact us. That’s what we’re here for!

What should I do: Responsive Website or Dedicated Mobilesite?

Responsive web design (RWD) is the latest buzzword to hit mobile web design. If you ask anyone about designing for mobile, RWD will be the first thing they mention. Does this mean that the dedicated mobile website is a thing of the past?

The short answer is no, and a recent article on Mashable tackled the question. While the article compares RWD to native app development, the same concepts apply to RWD versus a dedicated website. Their best advice for choosing between the two options was at the top of the article:

The first thing you need to do is forget about buzzwords and lingo and focus on the actual needs of your business.

I agree with this 100% and would take it a step further and say that you need to determine how to best serve not only the needs of your business but also the needs of your customers. In fact, a better question to ask yourself is whether your mobile solution serves the needs of your business, your designers, or your customers.

Too often, designers and engineers focus on optimizing the development to satisfy the business needs (such as time and cost), or their capabilities, without  factoring in how to satisfy the customer needs. The bottom line: if you’re not designing your mobile presence in order to provide a relevant, context-aware solution for your customers, then you’re going to build an under-performing mobile solution.

When we work with our clients, both existing and new, the first thing we like to understand is the experience their customers expect when they access your mobile presence. Why do they want to access your content, product or service on a mobile device? What are actions they will take? What is the goal of the interaction? It’s important to establish use cases and prioritize them so we can work with the client to develop scenarios that we can use to gauge the effectiveness of different mobile user experience and user interface designs.

On top of that, we need to understand what the goals are for your mobile presence. Is to generate visits and traffic? Are repeat users important? What are the calls-to-action you want to generate (phone calls, emails, etc.)? Are you looking to generate leads and conversions? And most of all, what are the metrics that we will use to measure and monitor success? As you already know, anything worth doing is worth measuring.

From there, we can start to focus on business needs like time and budget concerns and have a dialog about what type of solution will work best. It may be a responsive website, a dedicate mobile site, a native app, or a hybrid approach that mixes two or more of these options.

My best advice: don’t ignore RWD, but don’t look at it as your only or best alternative. Another article that appeared in Smashing Magazine recently (a great general web design resource by the way) provided some guidance on building high performance mobile websites. It was a counterpoint to the RWD trend, as they succinctly summarized the limitations of RWD in mobile design

Responsive Web design (RWD) limits the creative process by forcing the same content, navigation and business processes to be presented on every device, irrespective of its physical capabilities.

While there may be some hyperbole in the statement, it’s not that far from the truth. I would temper the statement by saying that RWD is certainly in vogue and one path to generating a mobile presence. It can also be cheaper than developing a dedicated site, but at what cost? There could be impacts to performance depending on the complexity of your site, limitations to functionality by not tapping into mobile device functionality, and hidden costs that cannot be measured such as lost revenue due to poor user engagement.

So beware of those who push RWD as the only solution for mobile. If it’s the only tool in their toolkit, they’ll try to figure out how to use it to solve every problem. It’s like talking to the carpenter who only has a hammer in his toolbox – every problem looks like a nail. The carpenter can eventually build you something using only a hammer, but it may not be exactly what you want, or need for that matter.

The right approach is to analyze the job, determine the desired outcome(s), and select the right set of tools to deliver the best mobile experience to your customers.

A mid-year evaluation of our 2013 mobile predictions

Plenty of people like to make market predictions when the end of the year approaches, but few like to evaluate how their predictions are doing. I figured it would be fun to do a little review of the 10 mobile predictions I made for 2013 to see how they’re faring, and what my prognosis is for the rest of the year.

  1. BlackBerry releases BB10, will anyone care?
    My 2013 prediction: 
    RIM will spend a lot of time, effort and money trying to make BB10 relevant only to be forced to either sell the company or figure out how to migrate key BlackBerry features to Android.

    Mid-year prognosis: It remains to be seen if BlackBerry will end up being sold, but the reception to BB10 has been luke warm at best. In fact, BlackBerry’s recent quarterly announcement certainly seemed to indicate that things are not all that rosy in Waterloo these days.

  2. Microsoft attempts to buy their way to market share
    My 2013 prediction: Despite spending a sum of money equivalent to the GDP of a sizable industrialized country, Microsoft will remain at less than 5% market share and enter crisis mode as their core product revenues begin to erode under competitive pressures from Google and Apple.

    Mid-year prognosis: Microsoft might crest 5% market share by the end of 2012, but it won’t be by much. However, I like the strategy Microsoft is taking with regards to mobile, especially if they continue to copy Google’s mobile approach of aggressively pushing their software, like Office 365, to other mobile platforms.

  3. Can Apple keep up with Android
    My 2013 prediction:
     Apple’s desire to control the entire ecosystem will cause Apple’s market share to stagnate, effectively repeating what happened during the original Mac era. In fact, Android’s lead will grow as it is morphed and integrated into everything from appliances to automobiles throughout 2013.

    Mid-year prognosis: Apple is starting to see stagnation in their market share, so I stand by my beginning of the year prediction. I’m sure they’ll see a little bounce when the next iPhone models are released, but their closed approach is going to come to haunt them sooner rather than later.

  4. Can Nokia keep it together
    My 2013 prediction: 
    Look for Nokia to be taken over by one of the major OEMs, or sold off in pieces. There just isn’t enough time left for Nokia to pull out of its nosedive before it completely craters.

    Mid-year prognosis: Nokia hasn’t cratered, yet. There’s only so much duct tape and bailing wire can hold together. I’ll maintain that Nokia is a takeover target, although it may not happen until 2014.

  5. The rise of Huawei
    My 2013 prediction:
     Huawei leverages its success at the lower end of the market in developing countries and begins an assault on markets in the US and Europe with both their entry level smartphone and surprisingly affordable high-end models that not only rival but threaten Samsung and Apple’s dominance.

    Mid-year prognosis: Huawei is finding it tough sledding in the US with its latest handsets. From my experience, Huawei is tenacious and persistent, so don’t expect them to give up. If they go down, it won’t happen without a fight. Like my Nokia prediction, I may be a bit premature projecting their emergence, but don’t count them out.

  6. Amazon extends their mobile footprint
    My 2013 prediction:
     Amazon first attempts at a phone will fail, and possibly quite spectacularly, since a phone needs more than just good content to win users over. However, Amazon does not enter markets without a long-term plan, so expect a version 2 of their mobile phone in 2014 that will change their fortunes.

    Mid-year prognosis: During the latter part of 2012, an Amazon phone seemed all but a certainty, so I thought I was on solid ground with this prediction. It’ll be interesting to see what Amazon does as the holiday season approaches. Either way, I still predict that their first effort will not be a huge success, so if they’re even considering a phone launch, the sooner the better.

  7. Can phablets jump the shark
    My 2013 prediction:
     Phablets will be niche devices. Based on the usage habits of those around me, the 3.5 to 4.5? screen size will remain the bulk of the market as it allows for the greatest portability, which is what a mobile phone is all about.

    Mid-year prognosis: I still contend that phablets are niche devices. For what it’s worth, this one had to be my safest prediction of the year.

  8. Prepaid takes on contract mobile phone service
    My 2013 prediction:
     Prepaid, month-to-month service gains momentum as T-mobile looks to differentiate themselves and leads a charge to push people away from the subsidized model. I, for one, used to be a doubter but have been converted. I plan to switch my service to prepaid in 2013 when my current contract expires.

    Mid-year prognosis: Well, T-mobile stepped out and moved to a “no-contract” model. While it’s not true no-contract, it’s close enough, and I’ve embraced it. I’m no longer on contract, buy my own phones, and am free to move to any carrier of my choosing. It’s a liberating feeling, and one I suggest everyone should experience.

  9. Mobile web applications pull even with native applications
    My 2013 prediction: 
    There are too many smart people focused on making HTML5 applications just as good, if not better, than native apps. Sure, native apps such as games and Instagram clones will have their place, but the majority of mobile development will begin transitioning away from native to the web. So while Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook may think HTML5 isn’t ready, there are others out there who would argue otherwise.

    Mid-year prognosis: OK, so I may have a been bit early here, too. I still contend that it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when” it will happen. It may not be this year, but it will happen, and efforts like those of Mozilla with their Firefox mobile OS and Ubuntu Linux OS for mobile phones only serve to advance the cause.

  10. The rise of adaptive design
    My 2013 prediction:
     Look for more and more websites to provide alternative experiences based on more than just screen size in 2013. Websites will also take into account things like location and user behavior to quickly serve context-appropriate content.

    Mid-year prognosis: The uptake of adaptive design has been a little slow, but I’m going to stand by my prediction. As the adoption of HTML5 increases, I still believe that we’ll see some very creative mobile web designs that move beyond responsive in the coming months and years.

My last prediction was an incentive for us to maintain a regular blog presence. We’ve done a much better job this year than in year’s past, and I’m hoping that we can maintain our blogging momentum for the remainder of this year and into 2014.