Retarded Iteration

Chatting with Keiran from Reporo(who are going great guns, I’m pleased to report) last night at the Mobile Entertainment Awards (AdMob won again – yay!) I managed to articulate a thought that’s been nagging at me for some time, specifically about mobile applications. It might be obvious to some, but I haven’t actually heard it expressed, so I thought I’d share it.

One of the reasons for the rapid development and success of the PC web has been the ability to rapidly iterate, test, perfect and iterate again in a matter of hours. Some websites have completely changed their business model in this way and design, user experience and functionality have changed out of recognition from the early days, even taking into account the influence that faster speeds have enabled. I mean just look at eBay back in 1998 via the Way Back Machine and today.

One of the challenges of mobile is that the mobile web just doesn’t provide the same user experience as its cousin the PC web, forcing many companies to implement a Java application, or JME, as it’s not been rechristened by Sun, to give users the full intended functionality.

The problem with JME is that while it’s a great development platform, its a complete nightmare to port over the the many devices it needs to be used on. So a developer finds themselves having to do 80% of the work after the development is finished and before roll out can begin. For this reason, Sun is going to lose its domination in the mobile apps market, either to a new pretender or to the emerging power of the mobile web itself. Indeed many companies are abandoning JME altogether, accepting the compromises that go with a mobile web-only product. As far as Sun is concerned, this is like a marathon runner getting beaten to the finish line, despite having 26 mile, 384 yard head start. Some would argue that the issues are caused by networks and device manufacturers, but surely it’s Sun’s job to set and maintain standards so that JME could have been a feasible platform in the porting process.

However, the fact remains that many companies still do use JME as the platform of choice and it’s led to a stifling of innovation, as the whole iteration process is just so damn complex. Yes, you can make changes easily, but the deployment cycle makes rapid deployment almost impossible, leading to small and large changes being introduced as part of regular updates, like software.

There’s a strong argument to suggest that if the web evolved in a similar way, with regular 6 monthly (or so) refreshes as opposed to daily iterations, we’d never have seen the rapid changes ushered in with Web 2.0.

I conclude that if you must have a JME application to give the user the full experience (and consider long and hard if you can’t actually do it on the mobile web alone), you need at least a stripped down mobile web version. That way, users can flirt with the idea without committing the marriage involved in a download and it gives you an playpen to innovate, iterate and test new ideas.

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