Web Applications need a new smartphone-friendly User Interface

To understand why Web and SaaS applications need a new smartphone-friendly user interface one has to only look at the remarkable success of the Apple iPhone as compared to the Microsoft’s  Windows Mobile OS in its various reincarnations. Microsoft has been in the mobile OS business for over a decade and has invested heavily in the technology. Over this period it has released successive venison of Windows CE and Windows Mobile OS. It has also partnered with numerous third-party vendors and presumably garnered much insight about the consumer and their needs. Indeed for many years the Microsoft OS platform was one of the leading contenders in the space for high-end smartphones along with RIM BlackBerry and Palm, as the Symbian OS took over the low-end mobile devices. With so much resources, history and partner ecosystem, one would expect that Microsoft would become the dominant OS platform for smartphones, especially the high-end devices that approach the functionality of Personal Computers.

It did not happen. Literally within weeks of its announcement in 2007 the Apple iPhone and OS became the hottest game in town and displaced Microsoft in the consumer’s mind and eventually in market share. It was followed by the Google Android, and today Microsoft is relegated to a third or fourth position with some analysts predicting that Microsoft has lost the battle, and even the forthcoming Windows Mobile 7 OS may be too little too late.

What led to this dramatic change in fortunes? I am convinced that the answer lies in the different approach to the design of the user interface that Apple took as compared to Microsoft. It appears to me that Microsoft thought of smartphones as an extension of the personal computer with phone calling added as an extra capability. The Windows Mobile platforms and its predecessors were therefore designed as an extension of the Windows platform to mobile device. The user interface approach was more or less the same approach taken by Windows which dominated the desktop. Indeed, if it was possible to run full-fledged Windows on a mobile device Microsoft would have preferred to do that. Since that was not technically possible, they designed Windows Mobile and Windows CE from a Windows perspective in terms of the user interface and functionality. The result was a mobile OS that was bloated with features and not really suitable, practical or innovative for mobile device.

In contrast, Apple took a totally different approach. First and foremost they understood that mobile devices are different than personal computers and it does not make sense to simply take the MacOS and dumb-down for mobile devices. Second they understood the unique characteristic, constraints and purpose of smartphones and designed an entirely new user interface that was far more suitable and intuitive. The result was the user interface related innovations introduced in the iPhone OS. These innovations are simple and minimalist; but they are practical and are ideally suited for smartphone. I am one of those millions of users who purchased the iPhone only because of the excellence and intuitiveness of its user interface.

The bottom line is that smartphone are different than personal computers. Web and SaaS applications designed for laptops/desktops will not be successful running on smartphones unless their user interface is changed and optimized so that it is suitable for the characteristics, constrains and purpose of the mobile devices. The five major aspects of smartphones and their users which Web and SaaS application developers must bear in mind when designing the mobile user interface are:

  1. Small display size
  2. Variety of smartphones
  3. Need to work discontinuously
  4. Need to change devices
  5. Lower bandwidth and speed

Based on a deep understanding of these characteristics, Chatty Solutions has developed a unique and patented user interface approach called Chatty Apps that enables Web and SaaSa application vendors to address each of these characteristics and mobile devices and their users.  In a forthcomings post I will discuss how Chatty Apps accomplishes this.

Rashid N. Khan

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