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Every generation of working stiffs has a dream of quitting their day jobs and living in luxury. In the ’60s the men and women of Madison Avenue pined for antique shops in Greenwich. In the ’70s workers threw off their chains for the charms of the back-to-the-land movement. In the ’80s, that dream went upscale, and took root in the wine country. In the ’90s we longed to escape to Tuscany. And now, in the first decade of the 21st century, if we could just code that killer iPhone app, we could flee the cubicle farm forever, sit back and cash-in on a never-ending stream of royalty checks...

The success stories and the numbers behind them are impressive.

Like App Store poster boy Steve Demeter. Working nights and weekends, Demeter created Trism, and racked up $250,000 in sales in less than two months. Or take Ethan Nicholas, developer of the tank artillery game, iShoot. With a single iPhone game Nicholas raked in $600,000 in a month, earning $37,000 in just one day. The free game, Tap Tap Revenge was downloaded a million times in the two weeks following its release, and paved the way for higher-end versions from parent company Tapulous that sell for real money.

Designing for context: A good mobile application provides context-sensitive information that enhances the in-person experience. Nu-Tel mobile map designed by Punchcut.

In the first month Apple unveiled its App Store, more than 2,000 third-party native applications launched for the iPhone. As of this writing, more than 30,000 iPhone apps, including at least 7,000 games, are available in the App Store. By the time you read this, the App Store will have delivered well over one billion downloads.

Meanwhile venture capital money is flowing like water from an open spigot. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has bank-rolled iFund, to the tune of $100 million. It’s betting on innovators who bring “transformative, high-impact ideas with an eye towards building independent durable companies atop the iPhone/iPod touch platform.” Already it’s funded start-ups, including life coach Booyah, photo-sharing mashup Pelago and ng:moco, a games publisher dedicated to releasing games solely for the iPhone platform.

IT'S NOT A PHONE, IT'S A PLATFORMAnd that’s just it. It’s not a phone. It's a platform. Developers, user interface design firms and designers who get this, understand that the transformative value of the platform extends beyond the value of the applications.

In India, mobile phone owners use Obopay to send and receive money. In Kenya, txteagle combines mobile phones with crowd sourcing to perform small chunks of work such as medical transcriptions or tagging photos for micro-payments. And in Japan, novels written and read on cell phones make up half the best-seller list.

Meanwhile, in America, most of us are merely using the mobile phone to make calls, tap out text messages and take photos. That’s going to change, and fast. As smart phones proliferate, browsers for the phone grow more robust and connection bandwidth opens up, we'll see a new generation of handheld devices that transform the way we think about mobile computing.

According to Patrick Newbery, chief strategy officer at Method, “We need to stop thinking of the handheld as a functional device. It’s a channel for delivering communications, services and media.”

Designers have to think beyond the interface, Newbery says. “That's an example of legacy thinking. When you begin thinking about the device as a mode of interaction with the world around you, that’s future thinking.”

Photo of a test lab where Method sees how its mobile designs work when real users are trying to accomplish specific tasks. This allows Method to evaluate features, UX and visual design.

Evelyn Wang, Method’s director of user experience, says, “You have to design with the perspective that the mobile device is an extension of the user's intent. When you see the phone as an extension of your will, it’s not about how cool the phone looks. If you understand why people want to use their phone, you’ll change the way you design.”

IT'S NOT A PHONE, IT'S A LIFESTYLEChanging our experience of mobile phones is where San Francisco-based Punchcut comes in. The seven-year-old UI design company, which now employs about 40 people, looks at mobile as a way of life.

It’s not a device, or a platform, says Punchcut executive creative director Jared Benson, “It's a lifestyle. Life is mobile, media is mobile; your mobile is the ultimate social networking tool. The information and the tools built into the virtual world of mobile provide the ideal way to meet up in the real world. You can select people in your address book, connect with the ones you see on a map, then sort and filter by their interests.”

Joe Pemberton, Punchcut co-founder and brand director, says, “Clients are increasingly asking for embedded social networking components across the device. Our handset customers want ubiquitous access to the people they care about. They want to see their address book paired with location, so they can view their contacts in the context of who is nearby.”

Connecting mobile devices with social networking applications begins by asking the right questions. Shilpa Shah, associate interaction designer at Punchcut, explains. “We begin by asking, ‘How can we use a mobile device to help us connect in the real world? What contexts do we include, and what tasks do we want to perform?’”

As an example, Shah says, “Consider how social networking can be combined with a mobile handset to supplement the physical experience of shopping. The mobile phone can enhance the real experience by including maps to find friends and locations of stores, updated status info, cameras to share photos of items, or shooting a video to share back and forth among friends. The virtual device adds to the experience without detracting from it.”

IT'S NOT A PHONE, IT'S A PERSONAL SHOPPERAlexander Muse, co-founder of Big in Japan, the company that launched comparison shopping tool ShopSavvy for Google’s Android platform, points out some of the basic distinctions designers must keep in mind when they are developing for the mobile market. Common mistakes, according to Muse, include treating the mobile screen as if it were a stripped down Web site. “The screen real estate is smaller, the click areas are bigger. There is only room to fit the most pertinent information. Details get cut for the sake of simplicity and clarity.

Big in Japan's comparison shopping tool, ShopSavvy.

“The fundamental elements you use to design a mobile app are different than designing for a Web site,” Muse says. “Mobile apps are an entirely new paradigm with a whole new set of rules. The desktop application, in general, is positioned to drive productivity; Web applications are typically designed to inform audiences. Mobile applications are meant to be engaging. When building a mobile app, the goal is to do one thing and do it well. If a mobile application doesn't perform immediately or engage you in some way, you are sure to move on to the next thing in your life.”

ShopSavvy is a great example of an app that does one thing and does it really well. ShopSavvy allows a shopper to scan the barcode of an item in seconds, then determines if the store price is competitive with other local retailers as well as online retailers. The speed and consistent user interface give mobile applications like ShopSavvy a huge advantage over traditional Web sites. More than 2.8 million people have downloaded ShopSavvy and, according to Muse, more than a million use it regularly. 

IT'S NOT A PHONE, IT'S A GAMING PLATFORMFor every copy of Trism selling like hotcakes on the App Store, 6,000 games are not. That’s where ng:moco hopes to make a difference. The game publisher has released Rolando, Touch Pets, Star Defense, Live Fire and Word Fu, and recently received $10 million in series B financing.

Star Defense game designed by ng:moco.

Co-founder Bob Stevenson says, “With 7,000 games on the App Store there will be winners and losers. We want to build a company around really talented designers, help them with distribution and raise the quality of the gaming experience.

“We'll take an aspect of the game and polish it—whether it is the sound or audio, technical or engineering aspects—and make sure it runs fast, design the controls so they are easy to use, or work on the fit and finish of the visual design.”

There are three main qualities that bring games to ng:moco’s attention. First, Stevenson says, “We want the game to have mass appeal. It has to make sense in the marketplace.” Secondly, the developer must already be at work, bringing the idea to life. Finally, ng:moco asks, “Is the game native to the device?” For the iPhone that means a game that takes advantage of the device, whether it’s the accelerometer, multi-touch, GPS or music. “We're looking for games that can only be done on the iPhone,” Stevenson says, “and deliver an experience you can only have on the device.”

IT'S NOT A PHONE, IT'S A TOUR GUIDEHoward Pyle, partner, creative director and producer at Local Theory, has been bringing together content and technology for companies like Lonely Planet, Nokia and the Blue Man Group. As Pyle knows, it’s not about the device, it’s about what you can do with it.

Local Theory's The Yellow Arrow project with contextual content about a location explores Washington, DC, through music.

Pyle predicts that people will use the mobile device as a remote control. By that he means, “People will engage in small interactions that constantly change their experience of the world around them. These will be small, low footprint, thematically-based engagements.”

As part of a prototype built for Lonely Planet, Local Theory designed a mobile phone product that would replace Lonely Planet’s guidebooks. A traveler could visit a city, and purchase a pack of coded Guided Tour Cards. By keying in a code, the traveler could turn their GPS-equipped phone into a guided walking tour of the city. “Mobile changes your experience,” Pyle says. “It creates a layer, or a new context on top of the experience.”

Mobile is not just a new smaller screen, Pyle says. “It’s more than a channel for content delivery and distribution. It’s a connection tool-between people, places and experiences.”

APPS ARE THE NEW ADSRobert Dotson, chief executive of T-Mobile USA recently revealed that the average T-Mobile G1 customer has downloaded more than 40 applications from the Android Market. Figures like that have gotten the attention of the advertising industry, as marketers rush to fill the small screen with free applications that promote everything from the Hardee's iBurger to a virtual lighter for Zippo (3 million downloads and counting). As the iPhone and iTouch market reaches 35 million, and Apple is poised to announce a new version featuring advanced video capabilities, a recent report in the Wall Street Journal claims ad spending on the nascent medium could reach as much as $200 million next year.

For a new generation of developers and designers, opportunity doesn’t knock. It calls. Time to download the Software Development Kit, dust off your Objective C skills and start coding. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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