Mobile, Content, and the Divergent Ecosystem

by Jon Follett

Yesterday, at the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council's Mobile Summit, panelists and audience members eagerly discussed and debated developing for the often volatile ecosystem of mobile. The summit general session, "Content is King" featured panelists Phil Costa, Director of Product Management at Brightcove; Jeff Moriarty, VP of Digital Products at the Boston Globe; and Sanjay Vakil, Director of Mobile Product at TripAdvisor. The panel — which was moderated by Phuc Truong, Managing Director of Mobext, US — tackled questions on everything from the death of QR codes to the importance and difficulty of making mobile content findable to the developers' dilemma of native applications vs. HTML5.

Dealing with Mobile Platform Fragmentation
It's clear that the current divergence of mobile devices and operating systems is only just the beginning. While iOS has perhaps 8 different flavors of device / OS combinations in use, Android has hundreds; and, if you'd like to add Windows Phone to the mix, the total picture becomes chaotic quickly. There's no doubt that a certain amount of agility and flexibility is required to operate as a mobile content provider in this environment.

According to Jeff Moriarty, when the Boston Globe built its new Web site from the ground up in 2010-11, it decided to push boundaries, implementing the relatively new technique of responsive design to allow the site to scale across a broad range of devices and browsers. Responsive design — which uses a combination fluid proportion-based grids and flexible images from one code base to generate adaptable layouts — is gaining in popularity now, but, at the time, was far from the standard fare.

TripAdvisor, similarly, is highly concerned with fragmentation of the mobile platform, and has assembled some guiding principals to deal with it. "I don't want to ride 8 horses into battle," says Sanjay Vikal, "I'd rather ride one." This means that TripAdvisor reuses as much as possible from their Web site, while always making sure that the content is appropriate for the context. For instance, when mobile users view hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, they may first see a summary of the post, while a Web user with a desktop or laptop may immediately see longer form content. The tricky part, says Vikal, is in making sure the TripAdvisor experience remains the same across platforms.

For Brightcove, the answer to providing the right content in a mobile context may be careful curation. "Require people to make fewer decisions," says Phil Costa, "and they will follow a path."

The Death of QR Codes
Of course, as new mobile technologies come to life, others must surely die; And the panel was united in its disdain for QR codes. The pixelated jumbles of black and white boxes of course, have been wildly popular, used by advertisers to store URLs and send consumers off to marketing Web sites. But, the unwieldy codes have seen their peak, the panel agreed. One panelist shared a story, describing his mock horror at seeing a QR code on a Heinz ketchup bottle at a restaurant. "Do they expect me to scan this while I'm eating? You know when QR codes appear on ketchup bottles, it's over."

But, while QR codes may have had their day, image sensors will continue to be key elements for mobile interaction. Jeff Moriarty described technology that would allow you to take a picture of a print newspaper story and automatically take you to the online version, so you could share it with friends.

The Developers' Dilemma: Native apps vs. HTML5
There was no hotter topic at the summit than the native app vs. HTML5 debate. Should your company build a mobile Web site or a mobile app? For many companies, the answer to that question can depend on where they are in the customer acquisition cycle. An established company with existing products may have a much different answer to that question than a startup. Apps of course, cannot be found via search engine optimization or through casual linking from social engagement. And while native apps can still deliver more compelling experiences, HTML5 is closing the gap. If you can create that magical experience using HTML5, then you can reach a much larger audience, says Sanjay Vikal. And that, may be the most important factor of all.

Topics: Design, brightcove, MassTLC, the boston globe, tripadvisor, Analysis, Blog, UX, mobile