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Mobile Connections: Big Nerd Ranch CEO turns a skeptical eye to Android’s success, HTML5

Mobile Connections: Big Nerd Ranch CEO turns a skeptical eye to Android’s success, HTML5

mobileconnections_0Las Vegas -- Big Nerd Ranch CEO Aaron Hillegass kicked off Mobile Connections today by dispelling what he considers myths that seem to be taking an inordinate hold over mobile developers.

MYTH No. 1: Google is making Apple irrelevant

True, Google’s Android is selling in far more devices than Apple’s iOS (Unfiltered: Google’s mobile progress by the numbers), but those numbers can be deceiving, Hillegas said. iPhone users are the heaviest users of mobile data services, the biggest spenders on mobile data apps, and in general the most sophisticated and wealthiest users of smartphones in the market. That’s something that isn’t represented in simple market share pie charts, Hillegass said.

“You see that huge investment in Android, and you say iOS is over,” Hillegass said. Just a year ago a market share pie chart would have shown Nokia’s Symbian operating system the dominant platform, but that certainly gave no indication of Symbian’s meager mind share among app consumers and developers. “People who buy Nokia smartphones don’t use them like little computers,” Hillegass said. “People are using iPhones like little computers.”

Hillegass might be slightly biased considering he helped develop the NeXTstep operating system under Steve Jobs at NeXT Computer. When Apple bought NeXT, it turned that software into OSX, the platform on which Apple built iOS. Big Nerd Ranch does programming, design, consulting and training for companies launching their own mobile apps and is increasingly doing more work on the Android platform. But Hillegass said that he’d let the market speak for itself: 78% of paid app downloads have would up on iPhones and iPads, and more than half of all mobile Web traffic is directed to a Safari browser, though Apple has only shipped a fraction of the Web-enabled devices in the market.

hillegas_0Apple may not be able to match Android for sheer volume of handset shipments or variety of devices, but it will be on the vanguard of the smartphone market for quite some time Hillegass said. “I’m not saying the market is going to stay like this, but iPhone users will provide the indication of where the market is going,” he said.

MYTH No. 2: HTML5 will kill off native apps

HTML5 is being heralded as the answer to the developer’s platform fragmentation woes, by transferring the rich features of native applications to the mobile Web browser (Unfiltered: WAC launches as HTML5 heads for (2014) finish line). That’s true, Hillegass said, if you want to build a crappy app.

Hillegass said applications fall somewhere along a sliding scale between crappy and delightful, with usability at the middle. The most used and celebrated apps—the most delightful –invariably are developed natively for a specific OS. So while HTML5 may have its uses in inexpensive and functional development of apps across platforms, the more use an app gets—and often the more pleasure derived from it—will depend on how deeply integrated is with its host phone’s OS.

“Users want native applications,” Hillegass said. “They want to see them with pretty and intuitive interfaces. There are things I can do with a native interface that you just can’t do with HTML5.”

There will be plenty of work done in HTML5 to build no-nonsense functional apps that can work across platforms with no additional development costs, Hillegass said. There will also be a lot of cross-platform work intended to create a single app that can be ported natively to multiple operating systems, he added, but those apps will make plenty of compromises producing apps that are useable. But the delightful apps will require a developer to invest their resources into building each version of the app for each platform—or just focus on one platform. “Otherwise you’re just building to the least common denominator,” Hillegass said.

Hillegass did add one caveat. The problem of cross platform development hasn’t been solved but he does believe it is a problem with a solution. And surprisingly Hillegass thinks the mobile operators will be the one to solve it. As smartphones proliferate, operators are being cut out of the value chain, but if they develop a truly carrier-and device-agnostic platform that doesn’t sacrifice functionality or quality, then developers might flock to them Hillegass said. “They’re the ones that have the most invested in making it work,” Hillegass said.

Operator ostensibly are working on just such a platform, targeting both HTML5 and a common library of application programming interfaces, though differences between the operators ironically might wind up fragmenting what is supposed to be a common platform (CP: WAC leaving mobile app rev share up to the operators). As GetJar CEO Ilja Lars —who will deliver the Mobile Connections keynote on Wednesday—has described, however, getting 200 operators to agree on anything will be difficult (CP: GetJar: Operators have lost the consumer).

Hillegass doesn’t think WAC will be the answer to cross-platform development. In fact, he said he hasn’t yet seen any initiative or solution out there that has a reasonable chance of addressing the problem. But he said the stakes are too high for there not to be a massive cross platform effort out there. If a workable one does emerge, he said, Big Nerd Ranch will definitely buy it.


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