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Mobile Development: Thriving in the Shattered Future

As we all know, the way consumers access and interact with the digital world has changed drastically over the past few years.

No longer restricted to desktops and laptops, people are using their phones and the newest wave of tablet devices to get online for an enormous range of activities. Any kind of media or information and every form of commerce is now accessible from a multitude of screens.

At ThoughtWorks we've come to think of this effect as the 'shattered future'. As my colleague Jonny LeRoy aptly summed it up in 'Beyond Mobile: Surviving the Shattered Future' (11.10.2012): "The single screen of our past has shattered and the fragments have embedded themselves in our pockets; on our couches; and in our lives."

This shift represents a great deal of opportunity for developers, and a number of challenges as well, making it the obvious choice of focus for our most recent QTB (Quarterly Technology Briefing). For the last couple of years, this meant businesses needed an app for their sites, not just a client. Now however, it's all about products - not apps. Businesses needed to have one product, visible through multiple apps and other channels, and align their view of the product to their customer's view.

People are using multiple screens at the same time to consume media, opening options for parallel services that supplement existing consumption or interaction.

For instance in retail, products and services need an omni-channel presence. Customer experience may well include researching online, trying the product in a store, doing instant price comparison by smartphone and buying from a competitor's website, exchanging a purchase in a physical store, and then reporting the whole experience via social media. New arrivals in this space include using near field communication (NFC) to give deeper product details on your tablet as you walk past products.

Likewise in travel, people string together interaction flows that traverse online (booking), social networks (itinerary sharing), SMS (flight delays), kiosk (check-in), mobile (boarding pass and directions), in-flight (entertainment and commerce), and then the ubiquitous social media for discussing the highs and lows. There is a parallel trajectory in banking, with photo check depositing, NFC for payments, and SMS for receiving and responding to low-balance and other alerts.

Mobile development also dominated our most recent Technology Radar, a report assembled by our Technical Advisory Board that reviews and assesses trends in tech. Just to illustrate, our most recent radar found that HTML 5 is blurring the boundaries between "app store" apps and web apps.

Continuous Delivery has become an increasingly powerful approach for mobile development, with new services making it possible to deploy native apps to real devices multiple times a day. A greater focus on automated testing is also becoming important, helping to ensure everything works on actual devices when launched.

A number of new tools have also emerged for the rapidly evolving mobile space, including Testflight and HockeyApp, which both make it possible to manage the deployment of mobile applications and beta test your apps without having to release to the App Store.

Despite the focus on new technology though, it's worth noting that more than half of the world's phones are still feature phones. In the developing world, mobile penetration is huge but smartphones are fairly rare. Feature phones are still the dominant choice of technology thanks to their better battery life, robust design and cost effectiveness. This means the adoption of SMS and USSD as a UI are still recommended when serving the growing demand for mobile apps in these markets.

Above all, the focus must be on the end user, and how these multifaceted digital interactions across different devices connect with everyday life. By keeping this in mind and adopting methodologies like continuous delivery for mobile, developers will truly thrive in the shattered future.

New Video: Giles Alexander and Martin Fowler share best practices at TWLive13 Europe on how to evolve a mobile implementation strategy.