To Say Mobile is to Set A False Limit on Your Reach
The term 'mobile' tends to be overplayed because it implies a certain limit on application reach that is unacceptable to me. To say an application is either desktop or mobile, consumer or enterprise is really bad and we need to change this perception.
The technology world is changing, radically fast. The way we interact with systems today is changing quickly from the fixed monitor, keyboard, mouse setup we have used since the 70s. The hardware and the way consumers interact with all the complex software systems that we have built in the past (and currently) has changed, period. It is a touch first, on the go consumer demand, the existing client experiences we have built the past two decades just cannot handle. This cuts across both consumer and enterprise platforms.
Instead of thinking about the traditional desktop with a keyboard and a mouse, think about the glass and other newer natural inputs like Kinect providing voice and body gestures. Think about your users usage context. Are they walking around, at their desk, in their car, on the train, at lunch? How can you make them successful as quickly as possible.
Is you user going to be moving between client devices? If so how much have you considered continuous client capabilities? Can your customers easily flow from one context to the other without a disruption?
These are all modern things software architects must consider when not only architecting the client user experience, they must also consider how the backend is structured. Is your backend flexible enough to allow for varying clients to use? Is your backend scalable and available? Have you heard about the cloud and considered how that might change your strategies?
Is your organization or customer consumerized yet? Do you even know what I mean when I say consumerized IT? If not you really need to check with your employees to find out how many have brought in a smartphone or tablet to your corporate environment. Next, ask how many would like to have access to their business applications from those devices and how are you handling these demands?
If you don't think that makes a difference I say think again. Unemployment may be high at the moment; but good, forward thinking employees are in high demand. Having a modern technology environment can go a long way in attracting new, higher quality, more productive employees to fill those positions you have and no I am not limiting this to just technology workers.
Recently Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg talked about the lack of qualified technology employees in an interview with Charlie Rose. You think the employees Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other high profile/successful startups want will come to your outdated environment?
Just this weekend I was talking to a friend who works in a large company with a national footprint about the use of mobile technologies. Eventually, as it seems to always degrades, he said something like 'you have to understand my company is behind the times...". How many times do I hear this from just about everyone working in a traditional enterprise? It is depressing to think about. I even feel the depression oozing out of the person saying it. It's self-defeating. I think it is sad that far too many adults are so averse to minor risks and a chance at being a linchpin and leading their industry. Even more important, do we have a civilized society that has grown to repressing innovations from our employees?
Modern applications are mobile, but they are so much more. Modern applications are touch and context friendly. They are not developer first applications. They make users successful and provide multiple moments of delight. How many times have I heard friends, family members and customers say they want computers (ie software) to just work? More than I should. This tells me we have failed up to this point creating applications that users actually want. Our customers should look forward to using our software the way an 11 year old boy can't wait to come home from school to play a video game or watch his favorite ninja cartoon. Applications should be so easy to use that a 6 year old can pick up a device and find ways to be productive without any help.
As I evaluate user experiences across the mobile platforms I still see this outdated philosophy being used. I love the Windows Metro UI, but as I survey the marketplace I dare say less than 5% of the available Windows Phone applications really implement it. The Apple UI is over simplified and boring. The Android applications scream developed by a developer for a developer.
There are a few applications that break the boundaries and create great user experiences. Flipboard is my go to application, a simple news reader if you break it down technically. But it has made reading the news an experience I look forward to ever evening after diner. Think about the news readers we have all been using for the past 20 years (yes I am thinking back to my NNTP days in college). They all look like Outlook or even cruder. They all use the same basic tree display where you can group things by topics, maybe, and then drill into news sources by name then articles. On the right-hand side you typically have a content panel where you can read the currently selected article, boring and tedious.
Flipboard not only allows you to flip pages it flips the tired news reader metaphor on its head and shakes it all up. Now headlines come more to life as you read through the day's articles. Each page is laid out slightly differently than the previous page. Images are included with the headlines along with the short description or first few sentences of each article. I get to experience every single article in a quick manor by scanning and open the articles I want to read further. This is something classical printed papers have always offered that always seemed to be missing in the digital, RSS heavy world we live. But even better, the content is overwhelming, not the application. I touch the story to open it up, I can physically connect with the data.
If you have spent time like me at least watching the many sessions on Metro UI from BUILD you witnessed Jensen Harris perform a similar transformation with one of the sample news reader application.
http://channel9.msdn.com/events/BUILD/BUILD2011/BPS-1004 (aprox 20 minute mark)
Basic News Reader Before Transformation
New Metro Styled News Reader
Flipboard is not the only application breaking the boundaries, I see others that are not afraid of disrupting the accepted limits for their market. But where I see this failing in a big way is inside the enterprise walls. Big monolithic style custom business applications are just poorly done. The experience is typically not user and data focused, at least not as much as you think. If you think you are different you probably are not. I have built many of these systems and most likely so have you or at least been a part of one of those projects. It could be a completely customized from end to end solution or a customization of a big provider's application like SharePoint or SAS, etc. It could even be seen as a success when it is launched, but visit that application in a year or two and see if you have the same feelings.
I think enterprises, and honestly let's go ahead and lump consumer applications, fall into the false limits group. This is where you say this is how everyone else does it so we have to do it this way because it cannot be done any other way. Don't get me wrong I really do not want to revisit PowerPoint 95 or GeoCities experiences by any means. But I do want to challenge you to think about the false limits you set for yourself and your organization. I think the Blog post that has stuck with me the most this year was penned by Seth Godin back in March, Accepting False Limits.
"The key to this disconnect is the unspoken part about time and effort and fear. I agree that you will never ship that product or close that sale or invent that device unless you put in the time and put in the effort and overcome the fear. But I don't accept for a minute that there's some sort of natural limit on your ability to do just about anything that involves creating and selling ideas."
Seth is great and I enjoy reading his Blog each week. But he is not the first person to challenge me in this way. I had a history/psychology teacher in high school who preached the same thing. Nine seasons of high school and college football saw me challenged the same way over and over again by coaches, teammates and situations.
Today we have a great opportunity for all of us in the technology sector because the cloud and the easy access to touch first, mobile devices have empowered not only our end users but us. We can build some really awesome experiences. Earlier this week I was watching a video Samsung released showing a transparent, flexible, touch friendly mobile device. I mean, how cool is that? What could I do with that? [insert Minority Report reference here].
Also earlier this week Jesus Rodriguez, the visionary behind Tellago, posted a rather long post on a similar topic, Enterprise Software Sucks but it Doesn't Have To.
In it he points out many valid points the enterprise must consider. But he and I both don't want our pontifications to feel like a beat down, but rather a pep talk. We here at Tellago believe this and are pushing ourselves, customers and the entire industry to embrace emerging technologies to properly push things forward.
"I see enterprise software as one of the biggest opportunities to drive change to the business world."
Mobile adoption is forcing a change to a great new set of software experiences. Behind the curtain the cloud is empowering us to build the necessary back ends to make these interfaces truly viable. Mobile is much more than just a phone or a table,t its about a new client medium that is preferred by customers. We must rethink the way all of us think about our applications, both consumer and business focused. If you are unwilling to think about touch and mobility then you are actively choosing to ultimately fail. You will fail to attract customers and employees that will carry you to the next big movement in another 10-15 years. Can you afford to take that chance? Can you reinvent yourself and your classical environment? Maybe you and your organization should just be the focus of an episode of Hoarders instead. Now is the time, we have a real, tangible opportunity to clean out the junk we have accumulated over the past 20 years.