From mobile first to mobile native

A couple of years ago internet companies moved from having a mobile team and a mobile strategy to what they called ‘mobile first’. Instead of building a product and deciding how and if it would work on mobile, new things are build for mobile by default, and don’t necessarily make their way back to the desktop. 

Now, though, I think we can see an evolution beyond ‘mobile first’. What happens if you just forget about the PC altogether? But also, what happens if you forget about featurephones? What happens if you presume all of the sophistication that a modern smartphone has and a PC does not, and if you also presume that, with 650m iPhones in use and 2.5bn smartphones in total, you can build a big company without thinking about the low end anymore?

There are a couple of building blocks to think about here. 

  • There is the image sensor as a primary input method, not just a way to take photographs, especially paired with touch. That image sensor is now generally the best ‘camera’ most people have ever owned, in absolute image quality, and is also presumed to be good for capture more or less anywhere 
  • There’s the presumption of a context that makes sound OK, both for listening and talking to your device - we’re not in an open-plan office anymore. 
  • There’s bandwidth (either LTE or wifi, which is half of smartphone use) that makes autoplaying video - indeed, video that might not even have a ‘play’ button or controls - banal, and live video trivial. I think a lot of video use now is effectively a replacement for HTML, or Flash - video as content, not as a Iive-action clip. 
  • With bandwidth there’s also battery, or a willingness to charge, and as this becomes the main device and is used at home, battery matters less. 
  • The personal device thats always in your pocket makes the phone and its app much more closely connected to you, and much more immediate, perhaps for sharing something small and personal that you’d never save for turning on a PC when you get home, or (say) watching a live stream that’s happening right now.
  • There’s a multi-tasking OS and ecosystem that lets you run lots of apps, try new ones by the dozen (helped by a common address book and photo library) and makes new apps free or cheap and (especially on iOS) safe
  • And there are chips and software tools (especially now machine learning) that let you compress and stream in real time a live high-definition video, and broadcast to millions of people, and automatically layer funny effects on top - and make that seem like a commodity.

On this last point, it’s useful to think about just how many of these building blocks the crop of live video apps presume, and how many different reasons there are that it would be impossible to build the same thing on the desktop.

It strikes me that smartphones are both much more sophisticated and much easier to use than PCs, and certainly than the PC internet. They can do all of these things that you couldn’t do with the web browser/keyboard/mouse model, and that means both more possibilities for publishers and developers but also far more for ordinary users - far more creation than ever happened on PCs. And there’s a mobile-native generation that takes this for granted, and will tell you which apparently hot apps (doing something that would have blown your mind in 2007) are only for little kids now. A child born when iPhone was announced will be 10 years old in 2 months, after all. 

This change, from building on mobile ‘first’ to really leveraging what a billion or so high-end smartphones can do in 2016, reminds me a little of the ‘Web 2.0’ products of a decade or so ago. One (and only one) way you could characterize these is that they said: ”you know, we don’t necessarily have to think about Lynx, and CGI scripts, and IE2, and dialup. We’ve evolved the web beyond the point that <IMG> tags were controversial and can make new assumptions about what will work, and that enables new ways to think about interfaces and services.”

In the same way, you could build a ‘mobile-first’ app today that would still make perfect sense on a desktop - indeed, you could mock up a smartphone app in Visual Basic. The original iPhone UI, and many major social apps today, could be navigated fine with a mouse and keyboard or even with a keyboard alone, pressing tab to go from button to button. If your eye is on all of those 2.5bn smartphones in use today and the 5bn that there'll be in a few years, that might be the right strategy. But it seems to me that building out from 'mobile native’ rather than up from ‘mobile first’ might be a good strategy too.