What separates the good from the bad in the mobile web space? More importantly, what makes a good mobile application truly great? There are lots of examples out there, but what can mobile developers learn from them? Here are some common sense guidelines:
Mimic the desktop UI
Each web site or web application that we use in this Web 2.0 world has a feel that we’re used to; the mobile version of web sites should merely be an extension of that experience. Web developers should use the same fonts, color schemes and buttons wherever possible to make us feel at home. For an example, check out Mobile Facebook (here on the left), which uses the same blue hues and fonts as the Facebook I use everyday in Firefox. Facebook has also made it easy to click on a friend’s name and pull up their profile page with a mini-feed, contact information, and other Facebook features we know and love.
Strip it, strip it real good
A great mobile web site is a stripped-down, more functional version of its original incarnation, and simplicity is king — all unnecessary graphics should be be excluded. In terms of screen flow, content should be presented first, with navigation placed at the bottom of each page. Having to scroll past navigation to get to the real meat of a web page is the bane of any mobile user’s existence.
It’s the hardware, stupid
Smart mobile application developers utilize the hardware to its full extent. One example is the Nokia platform, which is known for being completely transparent and vulnerable to developers and has subsequently yielded some great applications.
Good examples: JoikuSpot will use the built-in Wi-Fi to turn your WAP cell phone into a wireless access point; ShoZu will use the N95′s GPS to automatically geo-tag photos and upload them to Flickr; Nokia Sports Tracker will use the GPS module to give you a map and stats about your workouts.
Know thy platform
Mobile web applications should be written natively for each device. Java applications, including GMail for mobile and others, are quirky and routinely lock up, requiring the user to either exit or restart. Having to write apps for multiple platforms may be tedious, but will result in happy users.
Google was able to take Google Maps to an entirely new level of usability by adding “My Location,” which uses cell-phone towers to give an approximate location and has been called a “poor man’s GPS.” It’s only accurate to around 1,000 meters, but saves keystrokes when trying to find a local pizza place.
Unfortunately with most mobile platforms, especially here in the U.S., hardware is limited by cell-phone service providers that subsidize handsets. But Google’s Android and the Open Handset Alliance will help put in motion a new era of “openness,” and consumers will be the direct benefactors.
And of course, Apple’s SDK is coming out soon, which will undoubtedly spawn numerous touch-based applications.
My prediction: The iPhone will be the most hotly contested mobile application platform and the App Store will be full of highly functional and downright fun applications to add to your precious iPhone.