Dev

Heroku mobile lead: ‘Mobile is not different’

There’s a pervasive myth that traditional web development is dead and that it’s all about mobile, but this simply isn’t true. Web development is not dead, and mobile holds no smoking gun.

Mobile is not that different or special. It is part of an overall trend where we have access to any app we want, whenever we want it, on whatever device we’re in front of.

In fact, “mobile” is just another way of saying “how apps should work” whether they are on my laptop, my tablet, my phone—or for that matter, on my thermostat, my car dashboard, or my refrigerator.

Head in the clouds

If I were to remove all my iPhone apps requiring an Internet connection, I’d be left with a camera, a clock, and a phone. Suddenly I no longer own a smartphone. That’s because when we talk about mobile applications, what we’re actually talking about are cloud apps.

When you start to build cloud apps that reach out to any device, the platform needs of mobile developers are really no different from those of web developers. All of my apps, whether mobile or web, require a reliable, scalable and secure platform that allows developers to iterate. While depending on the device, we may be serving up different content and rendering it in different ways, mobile and web are not different — everything requires a client, a server and an API.

The UI is everywhere

Buttons, swiping, and touch are not interactions exclusive to mobile. As developers, we know pressing is like clicking a mouse, swiping is like scrolling, and that touch screens have been on ATMs for ten years. Designing for a cursorless, hoverless or Flash-less device is simply part of a natural evolution.

There’s no doubt that mobile interfaces are changing, but changing interfaces are nothing new. Mobile is part of an overall trajectory that began long ago and will continue long into the future. We will soon see innovations in mobile user interface become part of non-mobile devices: Swiping to control your microwave is surely not that far off. Other features that we consider the unique to mobile — built-in GPS, touch screens, and inertia detectors — are really just capabilities that will find their way into many devices. Mobile may be the flash point, but it isn’t any different.

The Internet of everything

The Khazoom Brookes postulate assumes that the more efficiently we consume a commodity, the more of it we will consume. This is true with oil, technology, and information. In as early as 2008, we were already concerned that we would literally run out of IP addresses. Over the last decade, we’ve consumed the Internet at such a rate that we’ve literally run out of IP addresses. Back then, my experience as a Gowalla engineer taught me that the internet was everywhere. With the creation of the IPv6 protocol, I believe that the Internet will be not just things, but everything. Not only will every person have an Internet address, but every device will also have one.

We are already seeing signs of an emerging world where mobile is just one of many types of devices that comprise a larger world of the “Internet of things.” From Kickstarter connected watches, to power outlets controlled by APIs, to Lockitron devices, to self-driving cars and 3D printers. There is an emerging singularity in how we interact with everything around us. In this world, mobile isn’t different; it’s just a continuation of what is already happening.

Mobile and the consumer

There is this great XKCD comic where a smartphone’s browser screen reads, “Want to visit an incomplete version of our website where you can’t zoom? Download our app.” It’s a poignant reminder of how when mobile is treated differently, consumer experience suffers for it.

My point in dispelling the myth of “mobile as different” isn’t to be contrarian. It’s to advocate for the user, namely, me and you.

From immersive gaming to quantified self to the Internet of things, companies are being challenged to build new apps in unfamiliar and sometimes bizarre territory. Our jobs are to offer consistent apps and experiences to the user, across all devices. And in this world, mobile is no different. We can squabble about code and protocols as much as we want, but at the end of the day it’s about offering users an experience that meets or exceeds their expectations. As a consumer myself, I think the best experiences are when everything just works.

Mattt Thompson is the Mobile Lead at Heroku, and the creator & maintainer of AFNetworking and other popular open-source projects, including Postgres.app & Induction. He also writes about obscure & overlooked parts of Cocoa on NSHipster.