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Start Your Engines: Mobile Application Development : Page 8

A fifth of the world's population will soon have a mobile device and access to the Internet. With that many potential users, is an explosion of mobile applications inevitable? If so, what technologies will lead the way in their development?

Other Application Considerations
In addition to the considerations listed above in thin and resident application development, there are some additional issues to consider when assembling a mobile application. These issues apply to both browser-based and resident applications, but are unique to mobile development.

Data Entry Complications
A few weeks ago, a story on CBS Sunday Morning featured a Japanese woman that wrote and distributed novels via her cell phone! She wrote an entire novel in six months on her cell phone! Some have been clocked at text entry of about 100 words a minute. Amazing feats, given that I have difficulty fat fingering in my voice mail pass code in the time required. While many are becoming more familiar with the user interface of mobile devices, it is often a clumsy interface compared to that of the desktop; especially to those of us that are older than the cell phone.

In 2006, the World Wide Web Consortium came out with the proposed Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0, Basic Guidelines recommendation. In it, they state "User input is typically more or a lot more restrictive on Mobile devices, which may lack pointing devices and usually do not have a standard keyboard with which to enter text." So what do they recommend? Some of the recommendations include keeping the number of keystrokes required to a minimum, avoid free text entry where possible, and provide pre-selected default values where possible.

This same group indicated that URL's maybe one of the worst offenses to the mobile Web user interface. The length of the URLs to many web sites makes getting to sites painful using mobile devices.

Many devices also lack a pointing device (mouse, pen, etc.) for interaction. Even when a device has a touch screen, the precision of one's finger to act as a pointing device on a small screen makes many common desktop UI "widgets" like spin boxes difficult to use. Also, mouse movements are not tracked on most mobile devices. Technically, it is a challenge to differentiate mouse movements and mouse events when there is a touch screen. Therefore, mouse events that trigger tooltips and other such actions are not available. Gestures on mobile devices may even differ from those on the desktop. For example, dragging on an iPhone is for scrolling.

These limitations are not killers, but they do require consideration when building an application for the mobile device and typically cause current Web sites to be revisited before they can be considered "mobile ready."

Interruptions and Interactions
The mobile device is many things today. In some cases, it's a camera, text messenger, music player, personal information management system, GPS navigational system, and, oh yes, a phone. Does your mobile application interact well with all these capabilities? Does it need to interact with any of these features? What happens when a user is browsing your site or using your resident mobile application and a cell phone call comes in? As indicated earlier, it is interesting to note that the new Windows Mobile 6 developer platform goes to some length to provide an emulator that tests the behavior of your application as the state of cellular communications changes.

Do you need a picture from the user's cell phone camera or a position from its GPS? Does the mobile device give your application runtime access to these features? Do these devices and their associated applications interrupt your applications use or vice versa? All points to consider (and test!) when looking at mobile application development. Also, when considering resident- vs. browser-based client application, note that access to these types of features may be tougher or impossible via the browser approach.

Display Differences
Of course, the mobile device display is generally smaller than that of a desktop, but display limitations aren't restricted to just the number of pixels available. Fewer colors and slower display speeds can also hamper the experiences of mobile users.

The Nokia N series devices have been manufactured to provide great multimedia capabilities. The N82 has a 2.4" display, LCD screen that offers a 240 x 320 pixel display and 16M of colors. It's impressive, especially given most competitive mobile products today. But remember, most of our desktops and laptops have at least 800 x 600 pixels (minimum and what most of the web is built to) and 32bits (> four billion colors). Doing the math for you, that's about 1/6th the display and ½ the color of our "normal" displays.

The display of mobile devices is certainly better than it was five years ago. According to a Report Trend report on mobile trends for 2008, we may have Apple to thank for continued improvements in the display in the not too distant future:

"The idea that User Interface = Culture Code is spreading in the market, and Apple iPhone can be taken as a prime example. Against this backdrop, handset vendors are expected to pursue mergers with UI companies while introducing a variety of new UI technologies, with a view to delivering differentiated OEM UI to the users."
The display restrictions and limited interfaces provided by mobile devices do not mean these devices can never serve as a powerful instrument to get information and product to customers. Proof positive is again from that fast-thumbed community in Japan. The New York Times reported in January of this year that five of the top ten novels in Japan last year were originally sold on cell phones! If thousands are willing to read a 200+ page novel over the mobile web using a cell phone, I have to believe there are still a lot of applications (some "killer apps") yet to be written and utilized on the mobile devices and technology at our disposal today.

Time to Get in the Game
With the arrival of so many mobile devices (and by default mobile users), there is no time like the present to bring mobile applications to life. Mobile development technology has arrived and is ready for prime time. As with all application development, the tough part of developing mobile apps is going to be trying to make the best architectural choices and design decisions given the needs and available technology. This DevX Special Report is meant to help address some of those choices and decisions. However, one thing is certain, you can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and wait for "better solutions."

Jim White is an instructor with Intertech Training. He is also co-author of Java 2 Micro Edition, (Manning).
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