Adaptive framework a mobile failure? Not quite, here's why

Here are four reasons why the adaptive-framework-is-dead argument doesn't add up. Engineers like adaptive frameworks and your CFO will too.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Adaptive design---using a set of code that can render a Web page on multiple screens---has been declared dead before it has really started rolling. Here's why that line of thinking is hogwash.


Facebook on mobile: A monetization issue not an indictment on adaptive frameworks.

To be upfront, the argument that adaptive design on mobile has failed is strikingly odd to me. It's even more odd that the argument comes from CBS Interactive's CTO Peter Yared on VentureBeat. And it's even odder that Yared argues adaptive framework is dead just as we're about to combine the English speaking ZDNets on one platform written (you guessed it) in an adaptive framework.

Yared's biggest beef is that an adaptive framework hasn't been great for monetization. Mobile and monetization are two words that haven't gone together, but it's a huge reach to say that an adaptive framework has failed before it has started.

Yared writes:

Adaptive design is an elegant solution to the thorny technical problem of having to deliver a content experience on multiple devices. And engineers love more than anything to apply the same hammer to multiple nails.

Unfortunately, users do not agree. Desktop web browsers, tablets, and mobile devices are fundamentally different and are used in very different ways. Across our properties at CBS Interactive, we have experimented with a variety of adaptive and direct designs and are learning the hard way that a one-size-fits-all solution delivers a subpar user experience.

Internally, I can think of two or three experiments and they are all international. ZDNet's platform will probably be the biggest guinea pig on the adaptive front here.

Like most of the folks commenting on Yared's post, I can't agree with the adaptive as stillborn argument. Here's why:

It's simply too early. Adaptive frameworks are just getting started. Publishers are using apps, HTML5, mobile sites and adaptive in spots. Going adaptive is a lot of infrastructure work and there simply aren't a ton of examples out there yet.

The Facebook analysis is flawed. Facebook was used as the primary adaptive is dead example because mobile is a challenge and the monetization needs work. The problem here is that Facebook is barely trying to monetize mobile and it's not like users have rejected the social network's mobile site approach. If the user experience on mobile Facebook stunk it wouldn't have 488 million monthly active users on its mobile products in March 2012.

Facebook has a mobile monetization problem, but it has nothing to do with code or a framework. First, Facebook has to try monetizing mobile and then be adaptive with its business model.

We'll let Facebook tell the tale:

We had 488 million MAUs who used Facebook mobile products in March 2012. While most of our mobile users also access Facebook through personal computers, we anticipate that the rate of growth in mobile usage will exceed the growth in usage through personal computers for the foreseeable future, in part due to our focus on developing mobile products to encourage mobile usage of Facebook. We have historically not shown ads to users accessing Facebook through mobile apps or our mobile website. In March 2012, we began to include sponsored stories in users’ mobile News Feeds. However, we do not currently directly generate any meaningful revenue from the use of Facebook mobile products, and our ability to do so successfully is unproven. We believe this increased usage of Facebook on mobile devices has contributed to the recent trend of our daily active users (DAUs) increasing more rapidly than the increase in the number of ads delivered. If users increasingly access Facebook mobile products as a substitute for access through personal computers, and if we are unable to successfully implement monetization strategies for our mobile users, or if we incur excessive expenses in this effort, our financial performance and ability to grow revenue would be negatively affected.

That passage isn't screaming that an adaptive framework is a failure to me. There's a monetization problem---or not since Facebook isn't pushing ads yet.

Economics point to an adaptive approach. To follow Yared's argument you'll have to have developers for apps (multiple platforms) and teams for each. The approach over time doesn't add up. Sure, engineers want one tool to solve multiple issues. But it's not just engineers. The CFO will want one framework to handle multiple sites. Guess who'll win that one? Over time, Web publishers will want to control more of their destiny and design for multiple experiences at once. As for the CFO, she'll hammer your budget as soon as you say silo and supporting three platforms. CFOs have been there and done that. The ROI isn't there.

Facebook explained the economics last year in a blog post.

Every device uses the same framework. This way we can move even faster and build new features just once for every mobile device. It also means that everyone can access the same features, whether writing messages or checking into Places. There will no longer be a difference between m.facebook.com and touch.facebook.com, we’ll automatically serve you the best version of the site for your device.

Adaptive simply adds up to a more unified experience over time. The silo-ed Web publishing approach won't scale. You can't write for 10 different platforms. Consolidate the code and deliver the content dynamically wherever it winds up.

Yared throws the economic case a bone. He says:

It is painful for engineers to have to support three different use cases for three different form factors. However, particularly for content sites, the effort bears worthwhile fruit in terms of mobile monetization.

That's today. A year from now may be all about adaptive.

Adaptive design is just a baby. This adaptive thing has barely started so it's a bit difficult to call it dead. Adaptive is like the Web in 1994---the tools just haven't matured yet.

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