Mobile Design and Development

It is pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that the growing prevalence of mobile technologies is something that cannot be ignored. A special report in the Economist on telecoms in emerging markets wrapped up with the prediction, “…at current rates of growth it seems likely that within five years, and certainly within ten, everyone in the world who wants a mobile phone will probably have one. 3G networks capable of broadband speeds will be widespread even in developing countries, and even faster 4G networks will be spreading rapidly in some places.” It does not appear that it will be long before Smart Phones are just normal phones and anyone who wants to be, will be connected to a world wide mobile network. Any business or developer that wants to reach groups of significant size really needs to be prepared via mobile platforms. Brian Fling has been helping others operate in this space for close to a decade and is very familiar with the lay of the land. He sees the opportunities and has experienced the pitfalls and frustrations as well. His new book, Mobile Design and Development brings some of that experience and knowledge to the mobile neophyte, looking for an overview of just how to get in the game.

Mobile Design and Development is not a long book and doesn’t delve deeply into the specifics of any one platform or technology. This is an overview that would be of value to anyone that will be managing a project being built for mobile, or for technical folks that are new to mobile. This will give the manager and leader an appreciation for the challenges and good guidance on realistic scope. For the person actually implementing the technology there is quite a bit of good information here that will be of value on the front end for making choices in direction and platform. There is also a section on building iPhone web apps ( applicable to any phone with similar capabilities running a WebKit based browser ). But this is not primarily a ‘how to code’ or reference book for any one mobile technology. This isn’t going to be the only resource a developer will want but could prove invaluable in saving time and effort wandering in what can be a rather complicated set of choices. The book even deals with making money on mobile platforms and so Fling very succinctly gives great coverage to most all that one would need to get up and running. I would think the audience that would get the most from Mobile Design and Development is the small team or individual that want to take a stab at the mobile market and have a high degree of flexibility and freedom. This book would be an invaluable resource in sorting through all the possibilities. Whereas someone working in a large corporation that wont give them the freedom to choose their platform, or someone who has already made all their platform choices would probably do well just to dig into something more specific to their chosen technology. That said, if the choice was arbitrary and if isn’t too late to change, working through the first half of this book may give one solid reason to reconsider.

In his preface Fling states that he has three principles that he would like to impart.

  • You need to know the different facets of the mobile medium.
  • You need to know how to leverage mobile technologies to address context.
  • You need to know how to leverage the right mobile technology for the need.

The book is in two sections, the first being an overview of just all what falls under the “mobile” umbrella and provides a few ways of organizing those pieces. It works to provide information applicable to the first two principles. The second section of the book focuses on the third principle and goes mostly deeply into mobile web applications, which Fling sees as the answer to the platform and carrier fragmentation present in other solutions. The question of web apps vs Native apps has created some interesting discussion and Fling falls into the ‘leaning towards web apps’ camp, though he is pragmatic throughout this book.

That pragmatism is extremely attractive and a large part of what makes this book worthwhile. It is obvious while reading that Fling doesn’t just talk about how things should be done, but he follows his own advice in his writing and presents what he believes will make for the best solutions. If there is a place where idealism will lead to the quick and ugly death of an idea it would be the mobile space. Compromise isn’t just something that may make sense at times, it is often forced right into the platform by carriers or others. Fling doesn’t back away from this and acknowledges when there are multiple routes, none standing out as ideal. He is very up front in sections where his technical reviewers had other opinions and presenting other options that they felt might be better. Fling tries to give succinct coverage to what he sees as the better possible options and leaves the choices to the reader, now armed with enough information to dig deeper.

Fling’s clarity and up front appraisal of the considerations in the mobile space lead to him describing one of the most prominent limitations of his own book. Besides the obvious that it can’t go into great depth on every mobile technology there is the fact that this information has a limited shelf life. In the fifth chapter, Developing a Mobile Strategy, Fling gives a set of seven rules that he believes should be followed in the process of creating a strategy. The second rule is, Believe What You See, Not What You Read and the following chapter contains the admonition, “Don’t trust any report, fact, or figure that is more than a year or two old. It is most likely wrong. For example, the majority of assumptions about mobile development pre-iPhone are no longer applicable.” According to Fling, barring a revision this book has a shelf life of roughly a year or two. After that one should really be looking to more recent resources. On the other hand, anyone even thinking about jumping into the fray, should be reading this right now.

This limitation is the only thing that causes me to not rate the book as a ‘classic’ and it is not really the fault of the author. It is just a reflection of the rapid rate of change taking place in the world it describes. My only other problem with the book is small, though at times a bit annoying. The book is black and white, without any color illustrations. This in itself isn’t a problem but the shades chosen for pie charts in more than one place are not sufficiently different to tell where one edge stops and another starts. Fling describes the charts, they are never floating alone without text that addresses them, so the reader doesn’t lose information, just the opportunity to see it displayed in a visual format. I’m not a person with great visual design skills, so if I noticed I’m sure others involved in the production of the book have as well and hopefully later printings corrected this issue.

The first section, as I’ve described, is a high level overview of the mobile world. This covers what Fling thinks of as all the layers of the mobile ecosystem. This means everything from carriers to hardware manufacturers to operating systems and more. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last year reading up on much of what Fling covers here, but there were still pieces of new information that I found. Fling takes a global view and doesn’t lean towards the situation as it is presented in any single geographical area. He is also dealing with all types of phones and platforms. While he obviously spends a lot of time, especially in the second section, dealing with more capable smart phones, he is still dealing throughout the book with less capable devices and systems. This is where Fling’s experience really shines. He has navigated what it means to try and develop for less capable phones, the realistic challenges one faces trying to get onto more hardware and more networks. It is at times daunting, but I for one would rather walk into something knowing the reality rather than being uninformed.

Fling hits all the highlights from what is available to suggestions on the whole life cycle of a mobile product including prototyping, testing and adapting to various types of phones and platforms. The second section, dealing with more specifics on putting together a Web App will throw a bone to the developer that wants to see some code. While it is mostly mark-up Fling does spend time dealing with some specifics of implementing a WebKit compatible solution. He states that this will work on a few modern phones, though a few subsections do carry warnings that they are iPhone specific. Fling covers the use of XHTML, XHTML-MP, CSS, JavaScript, and other applicable web technology. This is probably where the management types will start to skim over things. I do think though it still serves the purpose of giving an idea of what is possible and when it is appropriate to choose a pure web application over a native application.

I think that Fling does an excellent job showing that it is important to create mobile applications that are designed purely with mobile users in mind. The last chapter is only a couple pages long and is the only place that Fling devotes purely to prognosticating. The rest of the book is practical and focused purely on what will work right now. In his closing thoughts, Fling essentially invites the reader to be a part of bringing about the future of mobile. I think this is very fitting as he has just given his readers what they need to set out on that path.

Title: Mobile Design and Development
Author: Brian Fling
Publisher: O’Reilly Media
Pages: 328
ISBN: 978-0-596-15544-5
Rating: 9/10
Tagline: Practical techniques for creating mobile sites and web apps.

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