Background: It’s almost impossible to describe the smartphone market accurately without sounding overly prone to hyperbole. Worldwide, nearly half a billion smartphones will be shipped in 2011. By Christmas of 2011, one in two Americans will have one. Gartner predicts that in 2011, 85% of all handsets shipped globally will be able to access the mobile Internet.
In Q1 of 2011, Android supplanted Apple as the #1 smartphone OS in the U.S. While smartphone manufacturers jockey back and forth with one another for frontrunner status, swapping places with every latest hardware entrant, only feature phones (where the OS is proprietary firmware, and NOT a third-party development environment) are left in the starting blocks; there is little churn in the segment. In fact 2011, according to Nielsen, will be the year smartphones overtake feature phones in global mobile shipments.
For brands looking to build or maintain a mobile presence, the smartphone onslaught simply cannot be ignored. Nor can it be oversimplified. Too many American marketers think mobile is merely a stripped-down digital experience, a checkbox extension of their digital initiatives created automatically through the advent of rich smartphone browsers. The reality is that, worldwide, more people access the Internet through mobile devices than personal computers. It is the first screen, not the third. That over 95% of domestic digital marketing budgets are earmarked for non-mobile initiatives is an unpardonable lack of imagination, courage and good sense.
Smart brands and advertising agencies must consider several factors when evaluating how to create a mobile presence for smartphones. First the upside of browser-based mobile applications:
- Write once, run anywhere: This is the siren’s call of mobile that promises cost efficiencies by keeping the time spent creating, maintaining and updating applications to a minimum through the utilization of a tool-based multi-platform design paradigm.
- Universal browser availability: A rich browsing experience is all but universal in the smartphone market. If a brand presence can be defined and made accessible through a mobile web browser, it reduces the number of headaches to resolve for platform-specific nuances as long as you stick to the lowest common denominator.
- Support of advanced features available in HTML5: There are some components of HTML5 that will be a boon to mobile devices. Unlike mobile browsers of old, HTML5 promises offline support. Also, video in HTML5 is standardized, which will make adding video content to websites much easier. HTML5 also supports a GeoLocation API, allowing web developers to capture critical location data.
- Layout standardization: Web browsers depend on a layout engine at the presentation layer. While there are myriad mobile browsers available, WebKit and Gecko are the layout engines used by most, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome.
Unfortunately, there are also downsides to a browser-only approach, including:
- Browser diversity: The most prevalent smartphone browser in existence is the Blackberry, which has its own layout engine used by precisely nobody other than RIM. At the very minimum, creating a browser-based smartphone application that works on a majority of devices will require at least two completely separate development efforts.
- Limited HTML5 support: When Steve Jobs lambasted Adobe’s Flash in 2010, he pointed to HTML5 as the author of its death spiral. Somebody forgot to tell RIM, who supports the Opera browser while remaining ambiguous about HTML5.
- Hardware-specific amenities: Downloadable applications are typically able to access many features baked into the hardware that a browser-based application simply cannot. From the iPhone’s popular “shake” feature to other phones cameras and GPS chips, in order to unlock the richest of features from a mobile device, you have to think thick-client.
While the debate continues, what is certain for brands is to contemplate the merits of downloads vs. browser-based applications on a case-by-case basis. Mark Donovan, comScore SVP of Mobile concludes, “with mobile media consumption on the rise, the discussion of how consumers are accessing content -- whether it is via application, browser or both -- continues to be an important factor for companies looking to invest further in their mobile brands.” In every scenario, however, it is important to consider what will not work, and that, specifically, is to think that just because an HTML-based application works on a personal computer, it is sufficient for a mobile device. Mobile users have limited and hugely variable display capabilities, awkward and difficult input mechanisms, and the mobile mindset differs vastly from the PC user’s mindset.
In future posts, I’ll talk about mobile application design principles and dissect smartphone platforms in an effort to provide color for brands contemplating including them in mobile marketing strategies.