Mobilism 2012: A personal summary

This article is summing up my personal impressions from Mobilism 2012 with a focus on overarching themes and ideas. Disclosure: I am currently working for a German carrier. I will leave out any topics directly related to carrier business and strategies. Carrier bashing was a frequent theme during the conference.

Post PC is here

Coming from the late visionary Steve Jobs this term might still sound like a fancy to some, but during the talks and discussions of Mobilism 2012, the common feeling was that it is here already. With smartphones and tablets, a new class of personal general purpose devices is on the rise, which is disrupting the way we use information technology (and devices in general). Traditional PCs might not go away but they cease to be the dominant device.

Scott Jenson at Mobilism 2012

Scott Jenson at Mobilism 2012

We are still adapting to this brutally quick development and nobody knows where exactly we are heading. Established pundits and incumbent market players are still getting to grips with the fundamental changes that are taking place. Many still follow strategies and mental models that have been clearly invalidated by recent development.

In his talk, Horace Dediu, calls this development asymmetric competition: A new player enters a market in a way that incumbents are not able to retaliate. It’s ”David against Goliath” and the desperate powers to be (like Nokia) answer with the ”Charge of the light brigade”. The former dominant market players are encumbered by hedging their existing markets and relationships (e.g. Provider, distribution channels) making it exceedingly difficult for them to respond to the ”flanking maneuver”, that hits them in the rear.

Directly asked about his forecast of the future, Mr. Dediu answered cautiously: The mobile market will possibly not end up like the PC market with one dominant player. His reasoning: Sheer number of devices (more than one plattform can thrive) and no dominance of the business market as was the case when Microsoft Windows started to rise (just the opposite: consumerization is a driving force for mobile). His bet: Maybe there will be one or two flavors of Android plus iOS and Windows Phone.

A recurring theme of the conference was that app stores will not scale. Coming from some players this might be called ‘wishful thinking’ (Facebook, carriers), but apart from the looming app glut other reasons were given that might prove more compelling:  The advent of smart devices were the one that struck me most. They are expected to play an important role in further transforming our daily lives. And they have the potential to fundamentally change the the way we interact with devices in general. This will incite a powerful push towards instant cross platform operability. (See Scott Jenson’s article on smart devices).

The web won’t die any time soon

The Mobile web is clearly inferior in some aspects to native apps. The web, however, should not attempt to to compete with native on its own turf, but claim the use cases where it can excel with its natural strengths (cross platform, no access restrictions, searchable, linkable, installation free, etc.). That said, there are various initiatives working on narrowing the gap between web and native.

Major industry players (like Facebook, Google, Mozilla, …) are pushing hard to advance web access on device capabilities. Painless payment functionality is another feature for which we will see various approaches. In addition, app store like marketplaces (by Facebook, Mozilla, Google, …) for web-based apps enable easy monetization, discoverability, user recommendations, etc.

James Pearce from Facebook presented in his talk the W3C interest group for advancing the standards of the mobile web: Core Mobile Web Platform Community Group ( and the Ringmark Benchmark by Facebook

It’s not about smartphones, stupid

One recurring message of many talks was: The web is multi screen (and always was).

(Probably) the next big (in a rather literal sense) thing: TV. As Jason Grigsby has put it in his brilliant and highly entertaining talk: Smart TVs might become the next feature phones. Another memorable punch line: You can’t predict future behaviour from a current experience that sucks. If Apple (and/or Google) get it right, this will become another huge overthrow with new players disrupting the eco system of what we know today as “TV”.

In his talk Jason Grigsby makes a clear point for why TVs are a different kind of beast both in terms of design and interaction. A surprising insight of his talk: Browsers of recent Smart TVs are already quite good in supporting standards. But do not try anything to fancy, since – comparable to smartphones – they are not packing the horse power (in terms of CPU and GPU) you can expect from desktop based systems. If you you are the hands on type: Try the Google TV emulator and the Opera TV SDK.

We are far from reaching the end of fragmentation that has started with the rise of Smartphones as popular devices for browsing the web. Responsive Web Design might not be well suited to address all challenges of the multi screen world alone, but it will become an important tool for catering to different screen sizes within a single device class.

Supporting a multi screen environment

Even before the Post PC era dawned on us devices (in this case mostly PCs) have never been uniform in their capabilities (in terms of screen size, CPU power, etc.). But only with the advent of tablets and smartphones, the need for a flexible presentation of content and functionalities has become impossible to ignore. Thus, the challenge of multi channel content delivery (as CMS vendors labeled it in the old days) has been well known for years. It just recently changed from a fancy feature tick on product descriptions to a centre feature that now every one needs to consider.

The appeal for decoupling content and presentation was a recurring theme throughout the conference. Lyza Gardner pointed out, that the past problems with accepting a more abstract content management that is decidedly not “WYSIWYG” stemmed from lack of usability and the missing buy in of the editors.  She vividly pictured it as getting the chocolate out of the M&Ms.

Stop designing with photoshop! Semantically structure your content! Enable your content to reach as many channels and contexts as possible! Be relevant! Nothing new here. But bad web design will make you look even worse than it used to. Stephen Hays presented an interesting approach to a workflow for responsive web design. Brad Frost very entertainingly pointed out how “bullshit” (irrelevancy, clutter) will only get you ignored and eventually abandoned.

Tools and frameworks for the mobile web

Today you can choose from various approaches of developing web and hybrid apps. All have their specific advantages and pitfalls. Be sure to know them, before you paint yourself into the wrong corner. Frameworks for bringing legacy content online with a minimal effort are a short-term relieve, but might not be a viable long term strategy – only postponing the necessary invest to launch a full blown multi screen strategy. That said, there are astonishing solutions for kickstarting legacy content into the mobile age. Take for example mobify.js which works injecting JS code into the legacy desktop webpages scraping the content and rebuilding the output on the fly.

When going for cross-platform hybrid approaches, make sure you do not alienate your users by an experience that is lacking in “smoothness” or the look and feel expected from native apps. If you need the last ounce of polish, nothing beats native.

Although there are tools emerging that work around the lack of debugging capabilities of mobile web browsers, it can still feel like a reminiscent of the (not so) good old times of IE 6. What we really need is good native support for remote debugging mobile web browsers. Blackberry and Opera show how it can be done. Chrome for Android will follow shortly. (see Remy Sharp’s presentation)

Device simulators have their uses. But nothing beats testing on real devices. – Lots of different real devices.

If you think that is a platitude pointing out your garage full of smartphones and tablets, then remember those TVs …

There was so much more

Make sure to check out the slides of the talks once they are up on Watch the videos from the discussion panels. And do not miss out on the hilarious explanation how app cache is a real douche bag

Thanks, ppk and all the others. Great conference!

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