The Mobile Website Revival

Should you build a website that’s tuned to run well on mobile devices, or invest in creating an app for the iPhone, Android, or other mobile gizmo? Here’s the tradeoffs.

Developers are in for a pleasant surprise in 2011. Jobs and freelance gigs galore are opening up as a result of a mobile website revival. “Mobile website development is a pretty empty room right now. Everyone’s over at the mobile app party,” says David Bodnick, founder and president of WebINTENSIVE Software. “But that’s likely to change – and probably sooner than most people expect.”

It’s not that mobile device apps are dying anytime soon; it’s that companies are finally figuring out that Web apps have a different place in the overall mobile strategy than do dedicated mobile applications. Web applications are cheaper and faster to make, and they are device agnostic. “As more tools come to market and HTML5 support spreads, mobile Web apps will displace most ‘native’ apps,” predicts Ronan Cremin, director of development at dotMobi, the company behind the .mobi Internet domain. dotMobi was founded by industry giants such as  Ericsson, Google, GSM Association, Hutchison 3, Microsoft, Nokia, Visa, and others.

“Brands can now build a single mobile Web presence that works across all mobile devices without the limitations, costs, and maintenance issues of multiple app platforms,” Cremin says. “The mobile Web lets you address all of your mobile customers, not just those with iPhones and Android handsets.”

Web Applications versus Device Applications

The native app approach is currently superior in user experience to the currently washed-out and watered-down mobile website approach. But that is changing as business currents shift, bringing in the tide for mobile web development.

“Too many brands are in the middle of a love fest with mobile apps, believing them to be a mobile panacea – their easy route to be relevant, accessible, cool,” says Adrian Mendoza, co-founder of Marlin Mobile, a consulting and testing firm specializing in mobile apps and websites. “But mobile apps have limited staying power. The reality is that fragmentation among devices, platforms, and browsers is forcing businesses to invest unreasonable time, money, and effort.”

The result is that companies are now leaning towards doing both native apps and mobile websites. This is doubly good news for developers. “Developers of both will not have a shortage of work for a long time,” says John deGlavina, creator of CellPhoneForums.net, a large cell phone community that currently gets over 1.3 million unique visitors a month.

New Tools for Mobile Website Development

But that is not to say that mobile website development is an easy assignment for software developers. “To me, the rise in mobile represents the end of the golden age of web development. We’re back to slow connections, small screens, limited computing power, and a lack of support,” says Beau Lynn-Miller, a developer at KW2, an ad agency.  Lynn-Miller isn’t discouraged by this turn of events; quite the contrary actually. “Mobile support is moving quickly and in the right direction. Apple just made the accelerometers in their phones available through the web, which opens a whole new world of what’s possible. Google is supposed to do similar things soon,” he explains. “I think these actions symbolize the decline of mobile applications in favor of web based applications.”

Joel Sutherland, founder of a nine-person web- and iPhone app- development shop called New Media  Campaigns, sees hopeful signs in new mobile website development tools. Specifically, he applauds the next generation of mobile processors; hardware support for CSS3 Transformations (HTML5 animation); the emergence of strong mobile frameworks (Sencha, jQuery Mobile); the improved mobile browser JS performance; and Apple rescinding their ban on non-objective C applications in the App Store. “Essentially this means that soon, HTML/CSS mobile sites will be able to perform as well as native apps for non-game applications,” Sutherland says. “This means development will become more open and it will be more critical for major websites to provide a strong mobile experience.”

Open source mobile development tools and frameworks are also on the rise. “Frameworks like Jqtouch and JQmobile allow us to create slick, interactive, and affordable mobile versions of our client’s sites,” says Creed Huckaby, technology lead and head developer at Pyxl, a digital marketing firm. “This has totally changed the bar in terms of what resources a company must commit to have an impressive mobile presence.”

Upside, Downside, and In-Betweens

Most enterprises will find that offering both native apps and mobile websites is a necessity, not a luxury. It’s just two more channels in the ever-growing communications sprawl. As this realization dawns, the rush to hire mobile developers will continue to build.

“As mobile is relatively new and is a very fast changing market, all skill sets around mobile are in high demand,” explains Bjorn Hildahl, senior manager of product development at Kony Solutions, known for its “Write Once, Run Everywhere” mobile application platform. “The biggest demand is for people with expertise understanding the success factors of mobile, regardless of where mobile web plays into the customer strategy.”

Kony recently conducted a survey of large consumer-facing companies to examine the nation’s biggest brands’ current and future mobile marketing strategies. The survey found that corporations considered a mobile website “their highest priority for entry into the mobile market,” Hildahl says, “with 73% planning to offer a mobile website. Sixty-six percent said they would offer a mobile on-device app, a sign that mobile apps are catching up to the perceived importance of having a mobile website first and foremost.”

Certainly the heady demand for developers is welcomed in the development community, but developers themselves are of mixed emotions. Writing software for the mobile web is frustrating and difficult work.

Unfortunately, mobile web development is still somewhat immature, requiring a lot of custom coding and pieces. “Developers are unhappy about the amount of trial and error, and are busy building best practices,” said Hildahl.

Even so, the mobile web is one of the last wild frontiers for developers and many are excited about the possibilities. It is the land of innovation and risk-taking. “There are developers pushing the functionality and user experience envelope,” exclaims Bruce Williams, manager of development at thunder::tech, an integrated marketing firm. “There are new gestures and events that developers are being introduced to that weren’t there with standard desktop experiences.”

While Williams, like the others, hails the opportunities in mobile development, particularly with mobile websites, he also sounds an important warning. “There is a silent call for developers to return to the basics and fundamentals of agile application architecture and development,” he says. “If you aren’t listening to it, you will be left in the dust.”

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