2014: The year we start developing for mobile first

Things are changing in how customers want to interact with businesses.
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

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.

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