Mobile First – What Does It Really Mean?

Author

Ben Kepes, Contributor

April 12, 2015

I’ve spent time lately thinking about the notion of “mobile first”, the paradigm where application vendors consider their mobile users as the number one priority in their development roadmap. As mobile devices increasingly become the place we transact with an application, vendors need to pack more and more functionality into their mobile apps. This introduces something of a conflict – while they want their mobile apps to be simple, elegant and quick, they also want them to become more and more fully featured.

I’ve recently spent time talking to the mobile development team at cloud accounting vendor Xero, and this is a company that highlights that tension well. When Xero (and one could equally include Salesforce and NetSuite as examples to make this point) was created, mobile devices lacked functionality and, at best, where a minor adjunct to the main, web-based application. Those days have well and truly gone and the move to mobile has been, in part, driven by the standalone mobile applications that are increasingly a part of business peoples’ days – applications like Uber, that are almost exclusively used in a mobile setting, get people thinking about how mobile should work for them.

Xero first introduced mobile application years ago and, at the time, these applications included only a thin sliver of the total functionality that Xero has. Over time, however, Xero has added more of the web app functionality into the mobile application. The web app, however, has remained a monolithic application. And this is where the tensions lie – trying to include more and more functionality into a single-footprint application is difficult.

For Xero, the wide rollout of its payroll product raised this issue. Part of the payroll service requirement is an employee portal. A mobile employee portal, somewhere that employees can enter their time and look at their payslips, is not ideally suited to being shoehorned into a mobile accounting application. Xero will, I believe, has to start thinking of contextual applications – so-called situational apps that fulfill a particular need and use case for different classes of customers.

We’ve already seen this in the Salesforce ecosystem, a number of companies have been founded specifically to try and resolve the issue around modular mobile functionality for the Salesforce application and platform. Not to be outdone, Salesforce introduced its mobile development platform, Salesforce 1, specifically to resolve this issue. It was never going to be able to deliver the full Salesforce application onto a mobile device, so it had to give customers the ability to create their specific application experiences which leveraged the core Salesforce data.

There is a degree of technical debt that these first generation cloud companies have to pay down. Their applications were, for the most part, conceived of as monolithic, both in terms of the technology stack they’re built upon but also in terms of the user experience they offer to customers. Xero’s CEO Rod Drury often talks about his company being the “accounting engine for the web”. This means a fundamentally different thing in a mobile world and Xero will have to stat breaking its application apart into discrete modular components that customers and developers can interact with.

This raises a whole bunch of questions – not least of all the one around how to monetize this modular approach towards delivering applications. The traditional per-company or per-seat pricing model won’t suffice, and there is much thinking to be done around this. Possible examples to emulate are those of the API integration vendors like Zapier, who monetize based on API calls and functionality.

We’re in the midst of great change for application developers – the move from the desktop to the web was, in my view; a minor move compared to the move to mobile. While the desktop to web move necessitated much thought about infrastructure and ecosystem, this next move directly impacts upon the experience that customers have with an application – the stakes (and the attendant rewards) are higher this time.

This article was written by Ben Kepes from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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