Confronting the Mobile Revolution.

It’s hardly a secret that a lot of people are about to start using the Internet on their phones. Data prices are finally approaching affordability and cellular providers are practically giving iPhone-caliber handhelds away. Throw other connected devices into the mix and it’s obvious 2011 is fulfilling the long prognosticated intersection of desktop and mobile network traffic. As I wrote last year in The March to Invisibility,

The absolutely staggering fact that we’re faced with, however, is that while the mobile Internet is even less established today, it may well be larger when all is said and done. The sheer amount of time we spend away from our desks, the convenience of accessing information from pocketable devices, the lack of entrenched PC bias in the developing world, the pattern of embedding Internet connectivity in every conceivable device—your car, alarm clock, mp3 player, handheld video games, e-reader—all suggest vast opportunity and incredible scale.

What are you going to do?

You may, if you wish, ignore the mobile market completely. The need for websites and applications that display well on spacious screens and take advantage of full keyboards is not going to disappear. Countless schools, businesses, non-profits, start-ups, and private individuals have embraced the web. They will need new and better designs as the years roll by, more sophisticated programming, more cogent content strategy, and all manner of traditional services. Even more have yet to embrace the Internet. They too will need assistance.

Yet there is an undeniable allure to the wilderness of the mobile frontier. The very obviousness of its inevitability beckons clients and customers. The early adopters have blazed the trail. The masses — consumer and producer alike — are ready to pour in. Which leaves you, dear business owner, freelancer, entrepreneur, several critical decisions. Will you seek out clients willing to pay up front for a product which they then own, or will you strike out on your own, bearing the full risk? If you go it alone, will you stick with your HTML, CSS, and JavaScript guns or heed the siren song of native applications? How will you make money? Each path in this high stakes choose-your-own-adventure affects future decisions, is fraught with peril and rich with reward.

Clients or Customers.

Full Stop proudly considers itself a member of the web agency club. While you may be unfamiliar with us, you likely know Happy Cog or Unit Interactive or Mule Design or one of the thousands of other companies making a living by working with clients to produce web sites of all shapes and sizes. Each of these companies will also from time to time release a product. A List Apart, for example, is a Happy Cog production. 37signals is famous for their eminently successful transition from agency-for-hire to product purveyor.

Since many companies lack the resources to accomplish a task internally, they rely on capable web professionals to assist with strategy, design, development, and maintenance of their marketing sites and their applications, both internal and external. It can be a profitable business, offering fresh starts on many new projects each year as well as fruitful long-term relationships. As anyone working in the vendor-client dynamic can agree, however, the bad is not far behind the good. Every new client is a new struggle to establish control, respect, and trust. Visions clash. Workflows must be coordinated. Starting anew may allow lessons from the last project to be applied, but rarely can work be iteratively polished and refined. Many will testify to the occasional feeling of déjà vu. There are only so many ways to design a corporate or higher education home page. As a business owner, you must constantly grope for the next client, ensuring they meet your high standards, have real money to pay, fit with the existing workload, and reflect positively upon the company.

For employees and owners, harnessing the expertise typically applied to the needs of others and applying it instead to an internal product sounds wonderful. You are finally in complete control, able to craft the experience from beginning to end with no outside interference. The reality is liberating and terrifying. Trading clients for customers means walking the tightrope of business conspicuously absent any safety net. Either the product you created is useful enough, entertaining enough, or novel enough to convince people to part with their money or it is not. You may make nothing; you may make everything; you may lose everything. You may be somewhere in between, unsure whether to press on, moderately profitable, hopeful that just a few more features and a few more users will push you over the edge or throw in the towel, recognizing sunk costs as such, never realizing a profit on the thousands of hours and dollars spent pursuing the dream of independence.

The highly unoriginal solution is to do both, imagining and developing a product on the side allows you to sustain your business with steady client income whilst simultaneously taking your first hesitating steps into the world of products. Moreover, until the demand for mobile sites increases, that may be your only option if claiming your slice of the mobile pie is a priority.

Native or Web.

Whether doing work for clients or yourself, you will be forced to choose between developing native applications for the platform of your choice or working with the traditional web stack of server-side languages, databases, markup, styles, and client-side scripts.1

Designing and developing a native application means weeks of exploration, research, and experimentation before firing up Photoshop. Depending on which platform you choose, you will likely need to register for a development account, find and install the relevant programming environment, familiarize yourself with entirely new programming languages and idioms, test, deploy, and, in some cases, submit your application for approval. In addition to that surprisingly lengthy process, there are very real difficulties inherent in forging usable mobile interfaces ranging from relatively underpowered hardware to cramped screen real estate to unfamiliar modes of input and divergent expectations.

The alternative puts you in reassuringly familiar territory, if confronted with unfamiliar challenges and a demoralizingly complex method of testing, as painstakingly documented by PPK.  As an experienced web professional, your tools are HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. Thankfully Apple has paved the way with a robust WebKit implementation, and their competition has followed suit, making developing mobile sites as easy (or perhaps even more so because of WebKit’s aggressive support for modern CSS and HTML features) as developing desktop sites. While some may argue web applications pale in comparison to first-class native applications, there are many areas in which they excel and, for all but the most intense, games, they are more than adequate. The challenge, as you may be aware, is finding a way to make money.

Money.

Having convinced yourself the mobile revolution is happening and that you ought to be a part of it, you will, of course, need to find that secret alchemy which turns perspiration into a paycheck. In our experience, few potential clients have budgeted for a mobile site in addition to a standard site. As a professional, you may apply your CSS voodoo toward making an acceptable version which shares resources. The trend, if it is one, in this direction is in our opinion short-sighted. Like adapting radio to television or print to web, websites designed for people sitting at desks require more than mere cropping and contorting the constituent elements. The mobile device is a medium unto itself and demands commensurate attention. While businesses have yet to accept the wisdom of this notion, they will eventually. When they do, the proper budget will be allotted to that end. Therefore, in the mean time, you must address yourself to clients who are prepared to accept an exclusively mobile solution or you must abandon the concept of clients altogether and begin catering to customers.

Assuming you are ready to woo your first customer, let’s discuss how you propose to feed your family. There are, in our estimation, the following alternatives:

  • Submit your app to the store of your choice and sell it for a price of your choice. A noble decision. Your customers are your users and thus your interests are aligned. The best and most widely appreciated example is Apple’s App Store. You could build a game, submit it to the App Store where millions of people have viable credit cards, price it at 99¢, then watch as they bring the money by the truckload to your house. Or you could develop an application for any other operating system and attempt to sell it on their devices. I hear they’re working on convincing people to buy applications as well.
  • You could embrace the notion of advertising. True, you’re actually selling your application then to other companies who hope that by some strange accident an unsuspecting user will stumble onto their site and justify their ad spending, but many people claim to use this model effectively and it apparently works on all platforms. There are countless ad networks to choose from, and I’m told ads work regardless of delivery mechanism. That is, you could make money by selling ads on native applications or on applications requiring the user to go to your website.
  • You could actually sell a product. This is the space occupied by eBay, Amazon, and many other businesses. In this instance, your application is simply a gateway to something else.
  • You could attempt what is at present a bizarre method of convincing someone to pay for your application via a third-party system. Peter-Paul Koch outlined how this could work last year. Buying an application would cause your cellphone provider to bill you the appropriate amount. It’s marginally more mysterious than Apple’s billing mechanism, but it’s at least a step ahead of asking for credit card information to process yourself.
  • You could sell a subscription that happens to have a service attached to it. For example, you could provide exclusive access to a magazine or newspaper in a well-formatted mobile form. You could provide a productivity application, game, or a dozen other content types that require either constant engagement or release information on a serial basis.
  • You could solicit capital investment with the intention of becoming popular and, in rapid succession, acquired. The less said of this the better.

The path to making money by developing mobile sites and applications is increasingly well trod. The business models are proven. It is only a matter at this point of conceiving and executing the right idea. If you have the resources on hand, there seems little reason not to pursue what could be lucrative return on minimal investment.

Now or Never.

The much-anticipated explosion of Internet enabled devices is here. You probably saw a surprising number of your friends and relatives receive iPod touches, iPhones, Android phones, or another of the many devices contributing to the growth of the mobile web for Christmas. To again quote The March to Invisibility,

At the risk of belaboring the point, somebody will be building these sites. They will necessarily be different than the experience you encounter when sitting at a desk with your mouse in hand, but the core ideas are the same: data on one end, person on the other, Internet connection in the middle.

You may be wondering, as we are, how you can parley your web design and development skills into those green pieces of paper that allow you to eat and pay AT&T to grant you the privilege of reading Tweets while not watching your nephew’s ice hockey game. You may patiently wait for clients to realize their impending need of mobile formatted (and, more importantly, heavily customized) sites. It is possible this will happen in the next 12 months. There are probably companies that are doing much good work in that area even as I write this. You could evangelize the importance and the inevitability of the mobile Internet to your clients and potential clients. You might convince a few of your prescience or their inadequacy. We believe that will remain a tough road to hoe for at least a few more years. Many companies are still coming around to the idea that websites are necessary at all. Few will be ready to provide budgets for a mobile site commensurate with those bequeathed their desktop brethren.

Thus we are forced to conclude your most likely path to success is by striking out on your own to develop a mobile application or site. Having watched and waited for the last few years for the mobile industry to ripen, we as a company feel that time is now. We have been exploring all these avenues and expect 2011 will be remembered as the beginning of our (and many other’s) transition from exclusively desktop work to a mixture of mobile and desktop where mobile is regarded as more than simply one additional view to be bolted onto the traditional site experience.

  1. Per Zeldman, “The year the iPad, iPhone, and Android led designers down the contradictory paths of proprietary application design and standards-based mobile web application design—in both cases focused on user needs, simplicity, and new ways of interacting thanks to small screens and touch-sensitive surfaces.” []

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