2014: The year we start developing for mobile first

2014: The year we start developing for mobile first

Summary: Things are changing in how customers want to interact with businesses.

TOPICS: Mobility

When you're not at work, how much time do you spend using the internet on your smartphone or tablet, as opposed to your laptop?

OK, so I'm writing on my MacBook Pro, sitting on my sofa, but I've only cracked it out of its bag for the weekend just to write this piece. I could happily get by all weekend using mostly my Nexus 5, with occasional turns on the iPad for TV watching.

I'm probably not unusual in this. Increasingly people are starting to use post-PC devices as their only devices for getting online. This will have a huge impact in how companies communicate with their customers.


In recent years all manner of different types of business have found that their customers prefer to interact digitally using email, websites, and digital social networks, as opposed to picking up the phone, or walking into a store.

Up until this point, this digital nature of customer interaction had been done through desktops and laptops as these have been the dominant devices. Businesses have done a decent enough job of adapting to this, and it's something that's tended to benefit both business and customer.

But now with this crossover happening where we go from mostly-PC to mostly-mobile there's another phase of adaptation to look at. One where we go from "desktop first, mobile second" to "mobile first, desktop second".

A comScore whitepaper published this October -- Marketing to the Multi-platform Majority -- has a number of charts that illustrate the transition from desktop first to mobile first. Here's one of them:

comScore Mobile Breakdown
Share of U.S. Time Spent on Digital Media by Platform Source: comScore Media Metrix Multi-Platform Total Desktop Audience and Mobile Audience Age 18+ Date: June 2013

One of the things that always comes up when we talk about "post-PC" is this idea of smartphones and tablets replacing PCs. The tension in understanding the post-PC usually comes from an argument that "you can't use a tablet for doing real work".

By and large, that's true -- what people tend to do is use a PC when the task at hand demands the utility and ergonomics of a PC-based workstation. Typically you need to do that when you focus on a task for an extended period.

Where post-PC devices win out is through convenience. You might be watching a TV show and see something that reminds you of a book you want to buy on Amazon. What's easier in that situation -- picking your smartphone off of the coffee table and placing the order there, or actually getting up, going to your desk and logging on?

Add to that the fact that lots of people don't even need a dedicated computer but can get on perfectly well with just their smartphone, and it's no surprise you get the sort of data that comScore is digging out. As we go forward, the typical way that customers will communicate with a business will be a) digital, and b) not through a PC.


One oddity about mobile computing that won't seem to shift is the question around why apps the only things that people want to use when mobile web should do the same job. Companies are stuck in this position where they have to invest delivering to multiple platforms when -- if you look at the problem cold -- they should just be able to deliver once to the mobile web in a platform agnostic manner.

Read: Here's why HTML-based apps don't work

For whatever reason, users demand apps and in order to be nicely customer-responsive, we have to deliver apps to the dominant platforms, rather than just making a mobile-friendly website. Therefore what we're really looking at is a shift that started at "analogue communications" (phone, fax, letter, walk-in), to digital communications based on desktop web, to digital communications based on mobile apps.

But this "impedance mismatch" between desktop web and mobile apps can be helpful. Because there's a rather large chasm between these two worlds, it prevents an organisation from doing a good job on the desktop web and half-baking the mobile web and rolling out something on mobile that frankly isn't very good.

This used to be the case if you go back a decade, taking us before the start of the post-PC era. I worked on a good number of enterprise projects where the company would build a beautifully feature rich and capable desktop web application, and then throw together the most awful mobile web version just to put a tick in a product sheet. It didn't really help anyone.

This approach was "mobile second" -- i.e. the mobile solution was not the important one. It's that that has to change.


Customers will alway find their own level, and companies that demand that customers behave in a certain way according to their own rules tend not to do very well. So far, the shift to digital communications has served everyone well by being more convenient for everyone.

This worked before by companies building something cool and having early adopters prove and cheerlead the new approach.

But, this time, customers are in the driving seat because they know that using a smartphone is more convenient for them on a day-to-day basis. They're going to start expecting businesses that they deal with to react in a mobile first fashion.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topic: Mobility

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  • Some companies will lag

    This is the year we SHOULD be developing for mobile first, but a lot of IT shops won't clue in for another three years, I figure.
  • mmm

    I preference businesses that offer face to face, brick and mortar, and who have a telephone number easily seen on the front page and the first point of contact is a human not an autobot pretending to be pleasant and helpful. I love the convenience and do order on line, but I like to see others in my community prosper as well. I wonder that many of these changes are not so much being demanded by us, but more likely engineered to change out habits and expectations of doing business so as the big corporates can consolidate and control market share whilst chasing the all mighty and holier than anything dollar. : 0 soap box over.

    I use an iPad approximately 80% of the time (and dread the thought, for both business and tertiary study) the other 20% has little to do with utility/form factor and much to do with waiting for a usable app to fill the void.

    I read these articles and wonder at the differences in the worlds that we live in.
    • it isn't an either or proposition

      It is not just the Amazons of the world that live on the web. These days everyone's got a website that lets you order things. Even your local for location pizzeria.
  • 2014 Developer Strategy

    Matt you are right. We delivered a me-too mobile suite three years ago and it has not increased our revenue much - as a B2B business software company we still derive most of our revenue from client-server/web-enabled desktop applications plus associated consultancy services.
    For those ISV's targetting consumers, I absolutely agree that a mobile-first strategy should be implemented in 2014, however I am still sitting on the fence as to whether the windows desktop will be irrelevant in 2015 and beyond?
  • Desktops

    I've maintained for a while that a lot of people keep a computer around for tasks such as printing our airline boarding passes and such. But these days, airlines are allowing you to flash your smartphone at the ticketing counter, and NFC is going to make even that transaction seem outmoded soon.

    Now, I'm one of these people who'll keep and use a Windows PC probably 'till the day they stop selling them, but for a lot of people, owning a "full bore" PC is quickly becoming unnecessary. The home PC is going back to its roots, as a gadget for hobbyists and a tool for people whose job demands more than simple word processing and basic spreadsheets.
  • Why not HTML based?

    I believe a smart company would create a powerful mobile site, and promote their site on the various app stores by simply creating a downloadable app that is nothing more than a link to their site.

    You would be able to reach all 3 major mobile app stores while cutting the app development costs by 1/3.

    Currently my bank of choice does this and I'm impressed by it.
    Andrew Hargrave