The Future of Mobile: WebVisions 2009

Last Thursday and Friday, I attended the 2009 iteration of WebVisions, a conference held here in Portland focused on the future of web design and development.

WebVisions 2009

As with last year, my goal for attending was to gain new design perspectives. Web design is constantly evolving, and we use many of the innovations present on the consumer web internally in Connect. Rich is the primary design force on our team, and I like to broaden my knowledge of what’s out there to add balance to what he knows and likes to do.

Interface design is highly opinionated, so it’s always helpful to have a wider range of opinions from which to choose.

I haven’t been to any conferences since Defrag last November, but I can tell from reading that conferences have changed. WebVisions was no different. There was a distinct emphasis on social media (ahem, Twitter) not present last year.

I started on a daily recap, but I’m not sure that’s valuable.

Instead, I’ll focus on the two sessions I found most interesting: “Future of Mobile: Native Apps vs. Mobile Web vs. Hybrid Apps” and “OpenID: The Panel Discussion“.I really enjoyed Jason Grigsby‘s mobile session last year, and his “Future of Mobile” talk this year didn’t disappoint. The explosion of iPhone apps over the last nine-ish months has forever changed the mobile space.

Jason shared his experience building the Obama ’08 iPhone app, and the rationale behind his (and his company‘s) decision to stay away from exclusively building iPhone apps.

Even though the iPhone remains the most hyped mobile platform for apps and has undoubtedly changed the mobile space forever, he cited factors like an inconsistent approval process, platform lock-in, low long-term usage rates, and low return on time invested as ones that tempered the fuzzy glow created by the success he and his friends had with the Obama iPhone app.

Side note: I wonder how much time Clayton invested in the Oracle People iPhone app? Obviously, it’s free and not available to everyone, and I continue to get several requests a week for the download location. I can’t really determine the usage pattern from the Pinch Media stats, but I wonder if it’s the same downward trend over time.

Oddly, at least to me, I get requests to review apps because I sometimes blog about apps that interest me. This blog isn’t an iPhone review blog, but this reflects a trend that Jason discusses: success for an app is tied to coverage and the iTunes top lists.

Jason’s overall point was that mobile development should take a hybrid approach, i.e. not lock-in to any single platform (iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm, Android) and not rely on mobile web alone, to get the best combination of native features and portability.

He pointed out PhoneGap, an open source development tool for building fast, easy mobile apps with JavaScript and HTML. PhoneGap allows web developers to use tools they already know–CSS, HTML, Javascript–to build mobile apps by adding the native features of the platform SDKs. Very cool stuff.

He also mentioned rhomobile, a Ruby-based project that does the same thing. These are awesome alternatives to learning any single platform.

I’ve embedded his slides for your viewing pleasure.

On assertion resonated. Jason estimates that, in terms of mobile technology and usage, Asia is about two years ahead of Europe, which is about two years ahead of the US.

Crazy stuff to think that I’m using the 2004 mobile web as it was in Asia.

One of Jason’s slides reminded of a picture Puneet took a year ago in India, that underlines the point about how many people have mobile phones in the World (4 billion).

Photo by Puneet Thapliyal used with permission

This woman has a mobile phone, but no running water in her village. However, if Jason is correct, that phone is about three years ahead of what’s available to me today in the US.

Mobile is crazy like that.

The upcoming Palm Pre and new iPhone releases will have us all buzzing about mobile again.

What do you think? Find the comments.




  1. I don't want crazy. I just want a phone that works dependably, unlike all the current phones where the tower is just on the other side of a small hill from my house, which is surrounded by canyons. I don't live in a third world nation. I don't need a smartbook (though I see the attraction). But if I were developing for such things, I'd definitely want to be able to handle all sizes dynamically. And I sure wouldn't trust the power company to contact me before shutting off the power to the cell system.

  2. Not wanting crazy contributes, in part, to our lagging behind other countries in mobile. I think this will fade over time, but I'm with you fundamentally. I rarely use my iPhone for much other than calls and email.

    Of course, the carriers help hold us back too.

    I'm also not a huge fan of the netbook. Regular notebooks (like my Macbook) aren't terribly large, and “ultra-portable” sounds like “new, improved” marketing talk.

  3. I don't believe Asia as a whole is so advanced mobile-wise, India is a prime market for low-cost, bare-essentials phones for the mass phone manufacturers such as Nokia. The really advanced stuff is happening over at a select few wealthy countries such as Japan and South Korea.

  4. I think that's what Jason means by his generalization, Japan specifically. Within each major region, there are bound to be areas that are ahead of and behind the curve.

    Innovation is highly based on demand though too, which makes India a very large, addressable market, since mobile penetration there is very high.

  5. Jake is correct. Asia in this context refers to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.

    For more on measuring mobile leadership on a country-by-country basis, and in particular why the U.S. is behind, I'd recommend this great post from Tomi Ahonen that was sparked by some questions I had asked in the Forum Oxford message board:

    If you look beyond the pure technological advances and look at usage, you'll actually find a tremendous amount of similarity between developing countries and the most advanced Asian countries–far more in common than with the United States.

    Take mobile payment for example. In Japan and South Korea, you can buy a large number of products and services with your phone. In India, utility companies give 5% discounts for paying via mobile.

    Or simply look at the percentage of people accessing the Internet via mobile devices vs. PCs. In developing countries and in the Asian countries above, more people access the Internet via mobile than traditional desktop devices.

    So yes, when we refer to Asia being two years ahead, we're referring to a subset of Asian countries–particularly when it comes to the infrastructure and handset technology.

    At the same time, a compelling argument can be made that developing countries may also be ahead when it comes to usage of mobile phones for transactions and business because of the fact that it acts as a leap frog technology.

  6. Thanks for the clarification. I think Joonas might have a unique perspective about Europe, since he's in Finland 🙂

    Interesting stuff about mobile payments. I was reading about why that's such a big deal for the 3.0 iPhone firmware, and your examples illustrate why. We in the US have a much more narrow view of mobile as a phone first.

    I'm not sure if it's cultural/socioeconomical or technological (based on what carriers provide), bit of a chicken-egg riddle. For whatever reason, we're behind in mobile.

    I remember back in the late 90s hearing about what DoCoMo was doing and thinking how crazy-awesome that was. One of Bluetooth's original use cases was micro-payments for vending machines, but that never materialized here. Instead, we got the wireless headset. Go figure.

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