Developing for Mobile Devices
Having just posted a couple of articles on the Argos Mobile SDK here and here; and with the news that Windows 8 has just been released to manufacturing; I thought it might be a good time to reflect a bit on mobile devices and how to develop for them.
By mobile devices we tend to mean smart phones and tablets and not laptop or desktop computers. Certainly there is a lot of blurring around the edges of these categories. Phones becoming as big as tablets, laptops with detachable keyboards and touch screens, etc. There are all sorts of charts showing the growth of mobile devices such as this one from Business Insider:
Today you see iPads, iPhones, and Android devices everywhere. There is a huge market already and from these growth trends you can only see the market demand accelerating in the future. We are already at the point where many workers perform all their computing tasks through a tablet or a phone and may not have access to a desktop or laptop computer at all.
How to develop for mobile devices is a very hot topic around the web. There is a lot of debate around whether to develop using the native SDK’s from the device manufacturers, using a third party toolset that targets multiple devices or writing a web application that runs on anything. What are the pros and cons of all these approaches? What are the tradeoffs you are making when deciding between these?
Apple has done a great job creating the iPhone and iPad and giving them a great user experience. Anyone writing apps that run on these devices want to make their apps as great as any app from Apple when run on one of these. The same goes for creating Android apps or for creating Windows 8 Metro apps. So what are some of the things that you want in your application to fit in naturally into these environments?
- Follow the look and feel guidelines for the platform. Look and behave like any of the applications that the manufacturer provides. Honor all the touch gestures on the device, have great professional graphics and layout at the right resolution.
- Integrate with all the build-in hardware on the device. For instance able to access contacts, dial the phone, use the GPS, read the accelerometer, take photos, record sound, receive input via voice, film movies or any other neat hardware feature where ever they make sense.
- Integrate with the native operating system and utilize all its features. For instance on Windows 8 Metro, support the charms, command bar and integrated application search.
- Have great performance. Feel just as snappy as any other app on the platform. Don’t hog bandwidth; remember bandwidth can cost money.
What distinguishes all these devices? What makes them different? What do you need to support for the best experience?
- Screen size, we have all sorts of screen sizes from small but high resolution (iPhones with retina displays) to large with low resolution (cheap large screen desktop monitors). Being adaptable is quite a challenge.
- Input methods. Devices support touch, voice, keyboard, mouse, pen, QR codes, NFC, etc. Supporting all these can be quite a challenge.
- Different hardware devices. How multi-touch is the device, does it have GPS, does it have a thermometer, is there a sim card, etc.
- Operating system version. How up to date are most people? Which version do you want to support?
- Different processor power, battery life and memory.
Using a Web App as a Device App
Enter systems like PhoneGap. These take a web app and wrap it in a native application. In addition to creating a native wrapped app that you can post to the app store, it also adds a lot of hardware abstraction, so you can access things like the accelerometer, but in a way that PhoneGap will make work on all devices.
The Argos SDK is fully PhoneGap compatible, so you can create mobile applications with Argos, compile them with PhoneGap and then deploy them through an app store.
To use operating system you need to be a native application and you have to use proprietary controls to access things like the integrated search and the charms. You can probably simulate the command bar via other means.
If you buy a Windows 8 ARM Processor based device, then it only runs Metro or Web apps, it will not run any other type of application. So if you want to participate in this world then you do need to develop for Metro (or rely on a web app). It will be interesting to see if sales of ARM based Windows 8 devices takes off. Microsoft is releasing their Surface tablet in both ARM and Intel processor based versions.
Right now there is a lot of impedance between current laptops/desktops and Windows 8. Metro is really designed for the next generation of hardware and doesn’t work at all well with current hardware. Perhaps it’s a mistake making it compatible with old hardware since it yields a bad experience, but Microsoft’s hope is that as new hardware comes to market, then the Metro experience will greatly improve.