Mobile is the Next Big Platform

Mobile devices
    Photo by chrissatchwell

I recently learned about the keyboard shortcuts in Google Reader, and I’m quite happy that I did. I’ve always been a bit of a keyboard jockey, and it really makes chewing through my daily blog roll a lot more tolerable. After discovering that, I found out about the shortcuts in Gmail, Slashdot, Twitter, and many others. I’m glad to see some keyboard sanity being brought to the web. One big problem that I’ve always had with web interfaces is their lack, or inconsistent use, of the keyboard. I understand the technical reasons why the keyboard is a bit more difficult to develop for in a web page than in a native application, but that doesn’t make me much less annoyed.

The web is really starting to get better and better at the user interface game, which is pretty amazing when you consider the tight constraints of HTML, Javascript, and dealing with so many different browsers. It used to be that web interfaces were “lowest common denominator” affairs and while that made them usable everywhere it really did limit the richness of the experience. That seems to be changing and I, for one, welcome our new web-based overlords. 

It’s not without a price, though. As web applications become more complex, the demands made on the browser and system increase. It’s one thing to have tight control over a corporate desktop and be able to dictate what browser will be used and when it will be patched, but it’s another as a workforce becomes more and more mobile and starts to use devices that can be centrally controlled less and less. I remember the desktop standardization wars of the mid 90s when it was still not clear that Windows would be ubiquitous corporate desktop of the future. Mixing the web and mobile devices is going to present some of the same challenges that precipitated those wars, and add some very new ones that we’re not even sure how to prepare for.

It will be the system administrator’s job to ensure that some corporate web application doesn’t break when the CEO is on holiday accessing it from a seedy cafe somewhere deep in the jungle because their Blackberry can’t get a signal. Standardization just isn’t going to be a viable solution in that case. We’ve moved from the LAN to the WAN and now to the MAN (Mobile Area Network, I just made that up) and it’s going to be an interesting ride indeed. 

So, while it’s nice that web applications are getting more usable, it does increase the expectations that will be placed on the underlying systems. The organizations that will thrive will be the ones that don’t have to make excuses for why things don’t work so well while away from the office.