An appy world

Forget the Internet – the digital scene is all about mobile these days, as apps continue to roll out at breakneck speed across a range of platforms. Before long, websites will start to look influenced by the streamlined usability of app design, predicts Scott Billings

Scott Billings

Predictions become more perilous the more precise they are. So when forecasting the fortunes of an industry like the digital design sector, generalisations are usually safer and more accurate. Bearing this in mind, in 2011 we can expect branding and marketing consultancies to continue to acquire digital specialists – especially those with technical skills, such as code developers. We can also expect to see successful digital groups keep moving up the client food chain, acting as boardlevel consultants on brand development, marketing and wide-ranging campaigns.

And yet these generalisations are rather tepid, as it’s what we are doing with the design work that’s really interesting. In the field of screen-based digital design, there’s really only one game in town, and that’s mobile. More specifically, the work of digital designers will be influenced by – as well as influence – how we use mobile devices.

One of the biggest trends in this area over the past few years has been the rise of the app. At the risk of propagating a certain well-known advertising slogan, there really is an app for everything. And although we have the release of the iPhone, iPod Touch and App Store to thank for this explosion, the world of apps has already become much more than just an Apple platform: it is a shift in the way that we now interact through the Internet, perhaps with implications for the nature of digital design and development in the future.

Chris Anderson, editor in chief at Wired US magazine, has proclaimed that ‘the Web is dead’, by which he means that our use of Web browsers to find and view traditional sites in an open and boundless World Wide Web is diminishing. Instead, we are using proprietary, closed applications to send and receive the information we need, albeit still via the Internet.

This appears to be a pedantic distinction between the ‘Web’ and the ‘Internet’. But if Anderson is right, the design and coding skills needed to build websites using standard languages such as HTML will be gradually overtaken by the programming skills needed to write bespoke apps for particular mobile operating systems, such as iPhone OS, Android or Windows Phone. And the major digital design work will come from businesses developing and refining their app software rather than their websites.

Or maybe not. Perhaps it is the very proliferation of different smartphone and tablet devices that will check the dedicated app’s dominance, helping to spread the range of digital design work that is commissioned. This is because an app built to run on the iPhone will not run on an Android phone and vice versa. As Android’s market share grows, and as Windows Phone enters the fray, clients may well see more sense in a single Web-based application – a Web app – that can be accessed on as many devices as possible.

A Web app is a Web page that is designed to look and operate like a dedicated app. They’re not new, but the latest versions are optimised for mobile screens, are task-oriented and usually feature simple, functional and intuitive interaction design, just like dedicated apps. And because a number of mobile-device Web browsers run on the same engine, including those on the iPhone and Android phones, investment in a single Web app design and development project can reach multiple platforms simultaneously.

A great example of a Web app is the mobile version of the BBC’s iPlayer, which delivers an app-like user experience (on supported devices) even though it is just a Web page. With the next generation of Web design tools such as CSS3 and HTML5 incoming, Web apps should become even more slick, streamlined and powerful. For digital designers, this Webbased approach is also less reliant on the code developers usually needed to programme the more complex languages used in native mobile apps.

 So here is a prediction: over the coming year or so we’ll see more clever websites that look more and more like dedicated apps when viewed on mobile devices. In fact, The Guardian already moved in this direction last month with the redesign of its mobile site. For a company that has already invested in a successful iPhone app, this is an acknowledgement that the future may not belong solely to apps, or to the iPhone.

Our use of mobile devices will underpin pretty much all ‘traditional’ digital design next year and beyond. For digital designers this means catering for multiple mobile devices simultaneously – smartphones, ‘dumb’ phones, PDAs and now the larger tablets, such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy. The more effortlessly a Web-based design works across these platforms the more successful it is likely to be for clients.

The Guardian’s blog rather sets the scene, saying: ‘The new M.guardian site is available on any handset. Our aim is to improve the service for those of you with smartphones, who make up the majority of our growing mobile audience.’ Notably, the image used to illustrate The Guardian mobile site redesign features two HTC handsets and a Blackberry, with neither an iPhone nor an app in sight.

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