Musings on “mobile”

20 January 2013

iPad and BrydgeI look at my desk. There’s my laptop, driving not only its own screen but two external ones. There’s an iPad, third generation, affixed to a third-party keyboard. As I mentioned on my own blog, there’s a Kindle Fire HD propped in the stand on a foldable Bluetooth keyboard. To my left is a Adapter plus iHome dockcheapo docking station slash speaker pair that is charging my iPhone. Behind me on the floor, propped against the bookcase (why do I still have physical books when I have three Kindles?) is my Surface RT that I hardly use. Next to it is my old Kindle Fire, now relegated to my tech junk pile of history along with my previous laptop which I use for my Windows 8 testing. The only reason I can’t chuck my still-perfectly-functional yet-I-no-longer-use-it desktop on the same pile is that it’s the base for my old CD player – yes, I’ve been known to play the odd CD.

Sure, I’m a geek. I have a gazillion devices. This isn’t about that. It’s more about the variety of devices, the variety of provenances, the variety of OSes.

A few more data points on my curve before I get to my thesis:

  • My wife’s best friend has just bought (as a Christmas present from Santa) a Nabi tablet for her daughter, a feisty three year old, because she was fed up with the little darling monopolizing her iPad playing with paint apps.
  • Although Amazon don’t release Kindle sales data, all indications seem to point to the Kindle Fire HD being a big seller. Perhaps even better than Google’s Nexus 7? The iPad mini seems to be a bestseller.
  • Project Glass by Google. Yeah, it’s a concept device, but how close is it to release? This year? 2014?
  • I’m not a TV person (I don’t own one) but all I see at the moment is companies jostling with their TV devices (Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc, etc). And why should there be a TV device anyway? Can’t a tablet/laptop do the work?
  • In-car infotainment systems were all the rage at CES, how long before they’re in every car we can buy? General Motors and Ford seem to be leading the pack since they allow the linking of a smartphone to the device (and therefore the downloading of traffic data, say, for the device), but how soon before the car’s system is itself a “phone” and has its own Internet connection? Yeah, we can laugh now about the notion of downloading apps for the car, but it’s going to happen.

Kindle Fire HD 7 with Stowaway keyboardMy point then is this: in this world of a gazillion different devices with different screen sizes and resolutions and input methods (keyboard, touch, speech), how are you going to target the consumer? By writing iOS apps and assuming that the mobile market is just the iPhone and iPad? Or maybe that Android is the answer? Good luck with that; that’s not a plan of action for understanding the future, it’s painting yourself into a corner.

My thought here is that it’s way too late to just concentrate on one OS, on one device. We had that possibility in the past but it’s now gone, dumped with my old computing devices on my tech junk pile of history. Our customers are using god-only-knows-what devices to access information about the world, about us. They may be mobile as we currently understand “mobile” but they may be something else. The only way we can easily reach (for some reasonable value of “easy”) our customers in the future is to target the devices they are using, that they are thinking of using, that they will use. And that means HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript. It’s the only pan-device user interface technology we have.

Not only that – that was the engineering view, if you like – it also means that we have to get better at responsive web design. Our pages of data and information and content have to reflow automatically to suit the device; what looks good on an iPad will look disgustingly awful on those future Google glasses. We have to get better at data visualizations: a small screen needs different visualizations than a large one. Touch requires different scenarios and technologies than speech.

I feel we’re at the top of a cliff with a hang glider strapped to our back, with a wonderful countryside vista spread out in front of us. There’s a single simple step to make but – oh, the possibilities – how long will we fly, where will we land?

[A quick note: this is me pondering the future, and does not necessarily jell with DevExpress’ future direction. Or maybe this is more of a curve in 11-dimensional space, and several dimension dot products coincide with DevExpress’ 11-dimensional future plans. Who knows? I’m only the CTO here.]

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