Throughout the day on Thursday at GigaOm Mobilize, a conference devoted to mobile technology that's being held in San Francisco, moderators asked tech industry panelists whether mobile projects should be prioritized over desktop projects.
Invariably, the answer was some variant of "mobile first." Given the focus of the conference, that's hardly a surprise. But really, the question shouldn't even need to be asked, for two reasons: First, the shift toward mobile devices is so obvious and has been going on for so long now that the issue should be settled. If your company doesn't have mobile initiatives underway, someone is asleep at the wheel. And second, the persistence of the mobile-desktop dichotomy obscures the technological common ground.
Mobile computing is not separate from desktop computing; mobile is an adjective that modifies hardware but doesn't change its fundamental nature. Accordingly, if you're not thinking about mobile, you're not thinking about modern IT.
[ For more on mobile, read GAO Urges Action On Mobile Device Security. ]
Mobile is not a sideshow. It's part of the main event. It should be an immediate concern, not some future project. And yet many businesses still don't have mobile-optimized websites. For example, according to analytics company Restaurant Science, only one in eight restaurant chains and one in 20 independent restaurants have a mobile-optimized website.
Mobile should not be ignored. Consider what some of the conference panelists had to say on the subject during their respective presentations: "The biggest change [in the past five years] is in the type of people who have smartphones, they're ubiquitous, and it's the amount of time people spend on them," said Dennis Crowley, co-founder and CEO of Foursquare. Shiva Rajaraman, director of product management at YouTube, said, "Mobile is very important for us because it's 25% of our traffic."
And mobile is growing. Cisco in February predicted that global mobile data traffic will increase 18x between 2011 and 2016.
Why did mobile become so important so quickly? Rich Miner, partner at Google Ventures, suggested that no one quite understood just how frustrated people were with mobile devices before iOS and Android. It's probably also worth saying that many people quickly grasped the possibilities when desktop immobility ceased to be an assumption.
Would-be entrepreneurs should consider current sources of frustration as possible business opportunities. For example, Rajaraman observed, "[N]avigating on the TV is one of the most nightmarish experiences you can have."
They should also think about catering to businesses. "I see very few startups doing [mobile] enterprise work," said Miner. "Mobile is really where the excitement and the heat is," Nick Earl, SVP of global mobile and social studios at Electronics Arts.
As for social? Well, not so much. "Social is a little bit tricky right now, there are some pretty significant headwinds," said Earl, speaking specifically about social games.
How then to best develop meaningful mobile services? Think cloud and think fast. "If someone asks 'how do we start?', I usually just recommend Amazon [Web Services]," said Mike Krieger, co-founder of Instagram. Krieger puts a premium on speed, calling it a "core element of mobile."
But speed isn't everything. Mobile apps also have to be good. In light of the complaints about Apple's redesigned Maps app, Miner noted, "I literally got lost using the Apple Maps app last night."
GigaOm founder Om Malik mused that maybe Apple shouldn't do services. Miner replied, "There's build and there's buy. [Apple] decided to build and I'm not sure that was the right decision."
I'm not sure what's more amusing: Miner's swipe at Apple or the fact that one of the creators of Android was relying on an iPhone to get around.
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