Thinking Mobile? If You Build It, They Will Come

by Simon. Average Reading Time: almost 5 minutes.

Smartphone applications are predicted to overtake the desktop software market. So who will win the multi-billion-pound [dollar] application economy, and what are the new rules?

In January 2010, Apple announced to great fanfare that they had recently sold their 3 billionth iPhone application. Of course not all these applications are paid-for, but with a 30% levy taken on each and every paid-for application, Apple are taking a significant share of the revenue from the application pie. However, as a distribution channel, the AppStore is second to none, whilst the iPhone uptake is staggering, with a majority share of the smartphone market in many regions of the world. There is a significant opportunity for any developer to make a huge return on investment, assuming the idea is a winning one.

iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Nokia and now the larger form factor iPad and Kindle support the idea of applications, or will do in the near future. So what do you need to do to design and build your first application?

  1. Familiarise yourself with the rules
    Whether you’re going to build applications for the iPhone OS, Android OS or any other of the mobile platforms, you will need to familiarise yourself with how each operating system does things. Smartphone development is different from the development we are accustomed with on the Web. Reading the user interface guidelines for each platform will go a long way to developing your first application. Smartphones are personal devices and know where you are almost all the time through GPS. They have rotation detectors, compasses and multitouch screens with gestural interfaces. Only once you know what is possible with each smartphone platform can you begin to design your application.
  2. Brainstorm the issues
    This is the creative part of your application development process. You have a basic idea, but you need to take it forward into something that has features and benefits. Will the application be paid-for or free? Will it provide a service or be a marketing channel? Will it be standalone or link closely with other online presences and networks? Smartphone applications, unlike ordinary websites, invariably need to actually do something. There is an element of artificial intelligence at play, whereby the phone can actually know where it is in the world and it’s orientation, whilst the user interface is remarkably different from that of simply a mouse and keyboard. Smartphone applications can’t simply be flat catalogues, they need to do something and do it well. Whether this is booking and accessing a car as with StreetCar, buying something from eBay, paying with PayPal, creating music with RjDj, drawing pictures with Brushes, price comparison with RedLaser, reading the latest news from the Guardian, video casting with Qik or planning your journey with Tube Deluxe your app needs to be compelling.
  3. Create a prototype
    You have your compelling idea; create a proof-of-concept prototype. This prototype is used to test some or many aspects of the intended design without attempting to exactly simulate the visual appearance, content or intended interactions. Such prototypes can be used to “prove” out a potential design approach such as range of motion, mechanics, sensors, architecture, etc. Making paper prototypes, for example, is a great way to test the application rather than creating low or high fidelity wireframes and hoping for the best. Doing this also provides a perfect opportunity for people around you — friends, colleagues and family members — to try out the prototype with little fuss. Only once you’re happy with the design should you begin any form of coding.
  4. Submit early
    You have your application working. You have conducted a number of usability tests and all is looking great. It’s time to submit it to the appropriate application store. Apple has its AppStore, Android its Market Place, Nokia its Ovi Store and so on. Each store has its own nuiances, but if you’re considering an iPhone application, Apple has been know to drag its feet when approving applications for release. Apple has a much discussed approval process, with the possibility of rejection commonplace. Don’t make plans that depend on Apple. It is better to silently release the application, rather than creating a huge fanfare.
  5. Iterate often
    Once your application has been launched your work is nowhere near over, indeed it has just begun! As you gain more and more users, improvements will suggest themselves not only from within your team, but more often, from your users. Here is where you go back to stage two and start brainstorming again. Version 2 may include bug fixes, but also major feature updates. For the latter, your brainstorming will decide what is most important for the next iteration. When your next iteration is complete, the AppStore, for example, makes upgrades far easier to achieve than for normal desktop software.

If you’re planning an application that could disrupt one of the smartphones capabilities, such as Google Voice for the iPhone, it may be worth considering whether building an application specifically for that particular operating system is worthwhile. Google Voice was neither approved nor rejected by Apple for the iPhone, but has now been replaced by a fully featured HTML5 web-based application; circumventing the Apple approval process. Of course this now means that the same web-based application can be used for not just the iPhone, but other smartphones.

Now go forth and build it!


Smartphone User Interface Guidelines:

Application Development Frameworks:

  • PhoneGap an open source development tool for building iPhone, Android, Blackberry and other mobile apps with JavaScript
  • Appcelerator a mobile development platform for javascript developers

Mobile Web Application Frameworks:

  • jQTouch a jQuery plugin for mobile development
  • iUI an iPhone/iPod Touch user interface framework


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