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Mobile Web Development at Texas A&M

March 28th, 2012 by Erick

I think everybody in our industry pretty much knows the speed at which smart phones and tablet devices are being adopted by the public, and even becoming users’ first choice of how to browse the web. We have seen waves of new technology before, but the speed at which these devices are being adopted is something we have never seen before. By nature, higher ed is slow to react, and this is no exception. Many of us realize that something needs to be done to meet this new demand, but the decentralized nature of campus web development has left us without a uniform strategy. Marcomm, along with TAMU IT, the library, and a few others across campus, are working to change that.

When discussing mobile web delivery, there are three basic areas that need to be covered — native web apps, mobile web sites, and traditional web sites made mobily accessible.

Native Apps

We’re all familiar with native apps. We go to the Apple Store or Andriod Market and download them all the time. Whether it is games like Angry Birds or an information suite like TAMUMobile, these are self-contained programs written specifically for each device platform.

Apple has done an outstanding marketing job and made these things a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Everyone now assumes “there’s an app for that” and that in order to be hip, cool, and sexy you have to provide your mobile information on an app. When talking to departments across campus we see this ingrained response quite often…the first (and often only) thing they want to talk about is app development.

When looking at a campus mobile strategy, though, we need to step back a bit and look at how each piece fits into the overall offering. So, who really needs a native app, and when do they need one? To be honest, most organizations on campus probably don’t need one. The expense of building and maintaining separate apps doesn’t make sense for most departments. More importantly, though, most campus units just don’t have content that belongs in an app. Apps should be limited to application content rather than flat text-based content, and ideally should be something that requires the processing power or other capabilities of the device hardware itself (camera, GPS, etc.) While exceptions certainly exist, most of this type of content will be of wide enough use that it would be better to include within the university level TAMUMobile app suite.

Mobile Websites

Mobile websites are those which are specifically build for a mobile audience. These people have different content needs from those visiting normal websites. You must therefore not just design for a device that has different capabilities, you must design for a completely different user. The mobile user has different needs and expectations from a desktop user, give them the content they need. The user IS mobile, not just HOLDING one.

The legitimate case for a mobile website is probably far easier to make than for a native application. These websites might be web applications themselves, but will not rely on special hardware needs of the device. They will instead be features of content that users who are on-the-go are looking for. They are a perfect alternative, then, to a phone app when it comes to providing basic information through text content. It would be targeted information, though, and would probably be more focused and contain less that would your full web site.

Because of the nature of these websites, they will tend to be high profile and central to the business of the university. In order to maintain a common branding effort to all of these sites, a central mobile team is looking at providing a mobile framework that will work cross-platform and allow you wrap the content from your choice of development tools with a common university mobile style. Details will be released to the campus community once the process gets a little further along.

Making your Website Mobile

Making your website mobile is not the same thing as making a mobile website. While a mobile website features audience-specific text and organization, the mobile view of your traditional website focuses instead on simply making your full content easily viewable on a mobile device. Mobile websites are audience driven, mobile views are device driven. We do this through reactive, or adaptive design.

It many ways it would have perhaps been better to start with this topic because it is the one section that everyone really should implement. Given the proliferation of mobile devices, it is now becoming imperative that your content is viewable on them. We would not any longer dream of making a website that couldn’t be viewed on a Mac or on a particular browser. We should now think of mobile devices as being in that same category. We really should not be producing new websites that are not viewable and easily usable on mobile devices.

This development is relatively simple now, whether through the use of simple CSS media selectors or full blown frameworks like Foundation. A Google search will produce more articles and documentation than I can review. At Marcomm we have begun adopting this philosophy for all of our own websites, starting with the main university site. We are still experimenting with the techniques we want to use, but we are fully committed to the process.

Conclusion

I understand that many of us on campus want to jump on the mobile bandwagon, and all of us should be involved to some extent. It makes sense, though, to add mobile as an element of your overall web strategy rather than trying to shoe-horn your content into the mobile arena. If none of your web content is mobily accessible, the first thing you should do is start looking at how you can redesign your current website to include mobile friendly views. This works better when the design is incorporated from the ground up, but old sites can be retrofitted with the proper use of media queries in your style sheets. Also look and see if you have content that should be presented on a separate mobile website. Again, this should only be done when you are trying to reach a particular audience with is also mobile, but it is a great way of connecting your users quickly to the content that they need. Finally, if your content is something of campus-wide interest or which requires the use of device hardware, consider a native phone app. Marcomm, TAMU IT, and others across campus are moving together in this direction. Look for more information from each of us in the upcoming weeks.

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Wednesday, March 28th, 2012 Mobile Web
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