Wednesday, June 29, 2011

There's A Web Page For that

Yep, there's a web page for that, a ton of them. The one thing you need, a currency calculator, a CSS generator, there are probably five different web pages fit for the job. How useful are these web pages on mobile devices? It seems that applications native to the mobile hardware replace the browser entirely. These apps don't work everywhere - you don't see the same code running on iPad, Android, and BlackBerry. Each application that runs on a phone, if you can still get away with calling it a phone, is tailored to the hardware. Is this really a big deal to the user? Is the device-specific experience really that much better than something running in the browser? Currently, yes. Web stuff for mobile doesn't quite make the grade comparatively. No, there isn't always a mobile web page for that. But there will be.

What are web pages for? Information, of course. Well, I'd say the vast majority of web pages are about sending a message to an audience. However, plenty of web sites are currently transforming their content - or at least thinking about it - into something that's more like the desktop application experience. This is what users want, and so us software creators must have a pretty good reason to not deliver.

Why the change? Our websites never used to have trouble engaging with users. Why all the fuss over user admonition? The short answer is because we can. If a company selling widgets has an opportunity to hear the assessments of current and prospective customers, they'll take it. In fact, they're going to encourage users to submit any feedback. There is no such thing as a customer giving bad information to a company about their product. I mean, yes, there will be the odd loudmouth who does nothing but criticize, but this is nothing new. We've got to deal with those types even if we don't operate on the web.

We've got a bidirectional channel for businesses – much more effective than television. Rather than pushing out information, hoping people are watching, it's always available your clients seek it. If you want immediate feedback, provide your consumers with the appropriate tools.

Applications that don't utilize the web as a data repository aren't modern in any sense. We need applications that access the web, otherwise, users can't provide their feedback. We'd be crazy not to, right? If an online store, selling say, music, isn't hearing about each customer's unique experience, why might that be? Maybe they simply don't feel enticed to respond, probably because it takes more effort than it's worth. The question is, how to we make these feedback tools seamless to the point of being irresistible to the viewer? This is interesting to think about, especially in a mobile context where things suddenly aren't so straightforward.

Web pages aren't universal. Not anymore. We're really good at building just about any kind of application for the web, just as long as you build it for desktop and laptop browsers. Even some tablets do a decent enough job of displaying your retro backwardness that is 1.0. The rest of your users don't have the luxury of a larger display. To them, viewing pages on your site is like trying to plot a route on a map while looking through a magnifying glass pressed against it. It's a little unpleasant.

How do these web pages become a little more tolerable for the mobile audience? After all, we want to capture everything they're willing to tell us – we've got to make this as simple as possible. The answer in the mobile domain is apps. Users love their devices, and filling them with software amends their utility. What good is a smart phone without hundreds of applications installed? It isn't actually easier for users to interact with your mobile application, relative to your mobile web page that does the same thing. The application, once installed, feels like part of the device. That might seem too obvious, all software controls the hardware. This is no different from software installed on our desktop computers – new software extends the capabilities of the hardware. And since its installed locally, we've just expanded the capability of our hardware. There is something about the intuitiveness of desktop software. This is where mobile applications have an edge – they truly become one with the device for which they're built.

Why can't web applications do the same? Why can't they mesh well with the hardware they're delivered to? They can, and do. The trouble is that there simply isn't enough of them. There is a strong argument for developers to build web user interfaces for mobile users. Its the same argument for building web applications for desktop users – supporting several platforms is a major headache. Supporting multiple desktop platforms and multiple mobile platforms is simply out of the question for most folks. We've got to overcome the obstacle of unfamiliarity. Users want to install things, they want a level of assurance, knowing the tool will reliably get the job done.

The question is, can we give users this same level of comfort, the intuitive feeling that the web user interface is somehow part of the device. I think so. As long as they're able to launch it as they would any other native application. A little icon, part of a start-up menu, whatever the environment dictates, it just needs to mesh well.

Over time, I'd say over the next few years, we'll see web user interfaces become the standard. Apps won't go away entirely, there will always be a need for something specialized that no browser can support. However, the roles will shift – the browser will become the default user interface environment, desktop software the fallback. So yes, it's important that users feel comfortable using their software no matter the device. Software that's intuitive always comes out on top. As little as five years ago, web applications for the desktop weren't anywhere close to native desktop applications. All that's changed now – there is still a need for specialized desktop applications, but browser-based user interfaces are the first choice for a lot of developers now. I think this same transformation will happen with the mobile market sooner rather than later.