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The Mobile-Only App Anti-Pattern: “You Can’t Serve Two Masters”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 Jan 2012

We don’t even have a website

Will your app be available only from a mobile device?

In the anti-pattern Wikipedia article we learn that “In software engineering, an anti-pattern (or antipattern) is a pattern that may be commonly used but is ineffective and/or counterproductive in practice”. Reading the GigaOM article on “Whip myself–and Path–into fighting shape“, which is the ninth in a series of 12 tech leaders’ resolutions for 2012, I fear that we may be seeing the development of a mobile-only app anti-pattern.

In the article David Morin, co-founder of the Path social media sharing service, describes how:

I think 2012 will truly be the year of mobile Internet” and goes on add that “I mean, it’s so big. I get the GigaOM Pro reports on mobile, and I see these numbers: The amount of mobile display inventory, the fact that Apple’s paid out $2 billion to app developers, there are something like one million Android phones being activated daily. It goes on and on. The industry as a whole hasn’t come around to realizing how big mobile is just yet. But I think this will be the year where we focus on building companies that solely address the post-PC era.

I’d agree with that analysis.  My concern, though, is the author’s vision for Path (and Flipboard): “I think Path and Flipboard and a few others are leading the way. We don’t even have a website.”  He goes on to expand on this:

Products you build for the Web, which people access with a big screen and a keyboard and mouse while sitting at a desk, need to be completely different than what you build for a mobile device. You can’t just hire one mobile developer and take the interface you’ve built on the web and cram it onto a mobile device.

And then concludes:

It makes me think of something that Steve Jobs said: You can’t serve two masters. Well, the Bible said it first, but I think it applies to product design as well. You can’t serve both the Web and mobile with the same product. You have to choose.

It’s actually not quite true that “We don’t even have a website“. There is a Web site about the Path app, as illustrated, which has a handful of pages.  However there isn’t a Web interface for users of the app – so if you want to use the “smart journal … to share life with the one you love” you’ll have to install the app on your iPhone  or Android device (although you can, as I have done, also use an iPod Touch).

Beyond the Mobile Web vs Mobile App Debate

Much of the recent debate has focussed on whether one should develop for the Mobile Web, which through use of appropriate style sheets and other techniques, aims to ensure that the same content can be provided to both desktop computers and mobile devices, or develop Mobile App, which may exploit specific features of particular mobile devices and be more easily marketed and made available through mobile vendor’s apps stores and market places.

Source: Worklight

A Google search for “Mobile Web vs Mobile App Debate” highlights several articles including one which explains how Mobile Web App vs. Native App? It’s Complicated, This article recommends a “must-read article” on The fight gets technical: mobile apps vs. mobile sites which includes the accompanying image which graphically depicts some of the pros and cons of the different approaches to mobile development.

In the JISC CETIS briefing paper on Mobile Web Apps: A Briefing Mark Power makes the case for a universal approach to development which will ensure that access can be provided to both desktop and mobile users: “A viable, alternative approach is developing Mobile Apps using open web technologies and standards; technologies that continue to improve performance and offer more powerful functionality – as is now being talked about quite a bit on the topic of HTML5“.

There is, however, a recognition that mobile app development may provide benefits for users of the supported mobile developments. However the service provider is likely to find such development and subsequent maintenance costly and time-consuming and, at a time in which funding is being cut it would appear sensible to develop a platform- and application-independent approach through making use of W3C’ standards, such as HTML5, CSS and the related Open Web Platform standards.

However the anti-pattern described above take another approach to the issue of minimising development and maintenance costs: develop for the mobile device only and ignore the Web browser and the desktop computer!

I find this a worrying approach. However, as I described above, I have installed the Path app on two of my mobile devices. So rather than writing a post which simply reiterates the benefits of “open standards”, “device independence” and “universal access” I think there’s a need to understand the pros and cons of the approach taken by David Morin and welcome the clear and unambiguous statement he has made on why he feels this approach is best for his company:

The one big lesson I’ve learned from the past year is that every entrepreneur goes through really hard times — periods of time where people don’t believe in what you’re doing, or the numbers don’t look good. Entrepreneurs always have a vision: You wouldn’t have started a company if you didn’t. But the first implementation may not be getting you all the way there.

Find the users who see your vision and talk to them. Find out why they love the product and what they’re trying to do with it. Often, they’re trying to do something that you haven’t designed it for. You need to unlock that potential. Take away the things that don’t matter, and unlock the stuff that does — remove the complexity. That’s what will make it catch on with everyone.

I do wonder whether we will see institutions developing their own apps across a range of areas and whether we will find that the apps will not provide functionality for those without the appropriate mobile device. It would be useful to monitor such developments, particularly if the anti-pattern I have described turns out to be a successful pattern for mobile development.

As a footnote to this post I should mention the The State of the Mobile Web in Higher Education (2012) survey is currently open. The results of last year’s survey are available on the blog. It will be interesting to see how institutional approaches to the mobile web have developed over the past year – and if institutions are considering developing mobile-only applications.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to James Burke (@deburca) for his tweet which alerted me to this article.

One Response to “The Mobile-Only App Anti-Pattern: “You Can’t Serve Two Masters””

  1. […] The Mobile-Only App Anti-Pattern: “You Can’t Serve Two Masters” ( Here's what I think about mobile devices, mobile web, Web apps, heavy culture iPhone, Android Filed Under: User Interface / User Experience Design […]

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