Focus on Mobile Apps, Not Mini-apps
Mobile apps need to provide capabilities based on identity, location, GPS, compass, etc., then do analysis to predict what information the user may want.
Last week, Cisco acquired a company called ThinkSmart Technologies that provides intelligence based off things that happen over a WiFi network. ThinkSmart collects congestion information, delay times, traffic patterns and a host of other information to provide greater intelligence on what mobile users are doing and how the network is responding. This got me thinking again about a topic that I've been pondering for awhile and that's the difference between applications that are "mini" versus "mobile".
I would contend that that majority of corporate mobile applications are actually just mini applications. That is, taking an application that has been created for a desktop browser and reformatting it to fit on a smaller screen. Consider the images below:
The left hand side is United's standard browser based home page. The right hand side is the "mobile" application. However, I ask, what's so mobile about this? Nothing as far as I can see except it has things laid out a bit differently to work on a smaller device and is optimized for touch. Whoop-dee-doo.
Now for a very basic example of a mobile application, let's take Google.
On the left hand side below is regular Google. Type in a search criteria and you get stuff back. On the right hand side is "mobile" Google. Notice the area in the oval. Because I'm on a mobile device, Google knows I'm in Boston, MA. If I click on restaurants it gives me the restaurants sorted by proximity to my location. Google is taking advantage of the fact it knows where I am to help narrow down my search criteria. In fact, with just a few taps on the screen it can help me figure out a quick way to get there. Because of this capability, if I'm interested in proximity information, I'll often use my phone to look something up before my desktop, when both devices are equally at hand.
Now let's go back to United and its mini application. United knows who I am, that's saved in the application. It knows where I am as well. Google does, so United must have the capability as well. So if it knows who I am and knows I'm at Logan Airport and it's an hour before my flight, should United know what I want when I go to the "mobile" application?
How about pushing to me some useful information like what gate my flight is at, where the Red Carpet Club is, a map of the airport, where the food court is. In fact, let's take that a step further. By leveraging some of the stuff that ThinkSmart provides, how about doing some analysis of which restaurants are busy or not busy based on the density of mobile devices, then suggest one I should go to?
Now, after I land, if I'm connecting, tell me what gate my connecting flight is at, whether there are any delays and let me know the fastest way to get there and how long it will take at regular walking speeds. If I'm at my final destination, then push me the information on what bag carousel I'm at (again, United should know if I checked a bag) or work with Hertz to tell me what spot my car is in and tell me where the shuttle stops to pick me up. Taking that a step further, work with hotel chains and give me directions on how to get to my hotel.
This is the main distinction I make between mini and mobile applications. Mini applications are just small applications. Mobile applications need to be uniquely mobile and provide capabilities based on identity, location, GPS, compass or other information made available to mobile devices. Then do some analysis to predict what information the user may want instead of making me go look for it. Odds are I'm driving, walking or doing something that impedes my ability to look up information like I might be able to at my desktop, so the more predictive the application becomes, the more useful it is to me. Once this happens, the mobile version of the application isn't just another option, but in fact, the better option and will take mobile computing to the next level.
There are a handful of "augmented reality" applications available to consumers today that can help find restaurants, subway stops, look up product information and other things, but they are few and far between, and such capabilities are almost non existent with business applications or even B2C applications such as United.com.
To make this happen, I believe developers and companies like United need to start thinking mobile first instead of taking what they have and then retrofitting it for a mobile device. Only then will we get applications that are uniquely mobile. This will drive greater ROI to company mobility strategies and improve customer services. All the capabilities are there--it's just a matter of focusing on the mobile element of the application.
One final note: I used United as the example because I was flying them the morning I wrote this, and was looking at the application. Their "mini" application is one of the better airline applications, but they all need significant work before I call any of them mobile.