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Decisions, Decisions… Android, iOS, Windows 8 or HTML5?

Article first published as Decisions, Decisions… Android, iOS, Windows 8 or HTML5? on Technorati.

The last month has introduced much new food for thought if you are trying to decide which mobile platform to build on first:

It has definitely been an eventful pre-Holiday Season in mobile.

Which Platform To Build On First?

With all these different metrics and shifts in leadership, which platform do you pick? The market share leader (Android)? The eCommerce leader (iOS)? The one most familiar to enterprise (Windows)? The one most open of all (HTML5)?

If you are Fortune-500 company with a big mobile budget the decision is easy: build on several. If you are smaller, you probably can only build one or two at most (or at least one to start on first). Which one do pick? The answer is actually simple—if you ask two key questions about your intended user base.

Question 1: What is the (Intended) Usage Pattern of Your Customers?

Notice that this question does not ask, “What is the Intended Usage Pattern for Your App?” Why? Because sometimes building an app is the wrong thing to do.

Apps are really fun to build. However, they require a lot from your customers. First they have to find the app. Then they have download and install it. Then remember to open up and use it. That’s a long chain of dependencies required for success.

If your customers use your product regularly—and this use is transactional or highly interactive in nature—then build an app. Open Table is a great example: I book dinner reservations several times a month, on the spur of the moment. It is much easier to do from an app, especially one that needs to interact with other Apps on my device (i.e., calendar, telephone, maps).

However, if your customers only use your services intermittently, don’t waste (their and your) time and effort with an App. Instead, use HTML5 to make your site work really well on mobile. The same is true if your customers only consume content from one source. There is no need to download an App to read a news site. As the Financial Times has shown, HTML5 is much better for this.

Question 2: If You ARE Building an App, What Are Your Customer Demographics?

If an App is the right thing for your customers, then you are really lucky: you get to pick from a great set of mobile platforms. The question now is which platform best suits your needs.

Whereas back end technologies are hidden from customers (allowing the freedom to pick based purely on technical considerations), mobile platforms are virtually “joined to the hips” of your customers. Picking a platform that your customers do not widely use will not provide the results you want—no matter how great the platform and app is.

To avoid this problem, pick the platform that best fits the demographics of your customer base. If you are building for gamers, build on Android (do the same if you are building for users in Emerging Markets). If you are building for doctors, build on Apple (do the same if you are building for high-end commerce). If you are building for internal enterprise IT use, Windows 8 or BlackBerry 10 may be your answer.

There are many ways to find out what platform you customers use most: industry analyst reports, Xyologic stats, or even your website’s Traffic by Operating System in Google Analytics. As long as you pay more attention to these metrics than the latest attention-grabbing mass mobile headlines, you will be using the right technology for your customers.

Don’t build technology, build Business Solutions

In case you forgot, most people are not in the technology business

Most people do not create software and information technology for a living. (This makes the world a lot more interesting than it would be if we all did so.) Instead, they work on providing the goods and services we all use everyday to live complete lives: housing, medical care, energy, food, entertainment, etc. Too many people in the technology business forget this. As a result, they focus on designing and delivering technology from the perspective of technologists. This tends to create hard-to-use products than can often miss their mark. If you do not believe this, take a look at all the comedy sketches and commercials that make fun of software crashes and that not-so-popular tech support guy.

We need to design technology for people who are not technologists

When we design technology, we need to start with the following questions:

  • Who do we intend will use it?
  • Why will they want to do this?
  • How will this make their life — or what they do for a living — better?

This is not a new concept. It has been around for years in many formats. The Chasm Group calls this product positioning. However, they did not invent the concept. The Rationale Unified Process (RUP) calls this the Problem Statement (and airs it with a Solution Position). Most of my friends in Marketing call this Market Positioning.

When we start with these questions, we build “Killer Aps” that are wildly successful. Many software and information technology examples come to mind, from WYSIWYG word processors to TiVo to iTunes.

This is just as important in the enterprise space

Often I hear people say that the above questions are great for consumer products but do not apply in the enterprise space. I am always confused when I hear this… Do people mean that we should not design enterprise products with a focus on enabling business (and public) leaders to make their day-to-day jobs running their companies and agencies easier, more intuitive and more productive? Just look at how successful SalesForce.com was at doing this. (Remember their “No Software” campaign tag line?)

What happens when we design enterprise products around the technology (instead of the business)? We create whole new problems when trying to solve old ones. When do know this has happened? When you hear things like “you need to do [X] because [System Y] requires this,” and start to see job postings for people to run System Y — or worse — enter data into (and run reports from) System Y. Why would you ever build something so non-intuitive that you need to create a whole new profession just to operate it?

We can avoid this in the enterprise space by building “business solutions”

I coined the term “Business Service” (in the context of software and information technology) about six months ago:

Busi•ness Solu•tions |’biznis səˈloō sh əns | (noun)

  1. A reusable configuration of technology designed specifically to solve an enterprise problem (or address an enterprise need)
  2. That does not require its end users to understand how the technology is designed, built or adminstrated
  3. Which directly solves a business problems of the enterprise (or meets and unforeseen need).

I found this definition to be a good litmus test: technologies that are Business Solutions support their customers’ businesses, technologies that are not need to be supported by their customers.

What happens when we build Business Solutions?

  • We generate huge ROIs
  • We make our colleagues’ (or customers’) professions easier
  • We build something soon businesses cannot do without

I challenge all of my fellow enterprise technologists to build Business Solutions

Note: I am currently CIO and Vice President of Technology at Neighborhood America. We have codified this concept into the term Business Services (you can read Gartner’s discussion of this concept, here)