A “Starter” Mobile Strategy

You have to be living under a rock to miss the shift in Web usage from “traditional” devices (desktop and laptop) to mobile devices (phones and tablets).  For example, in India, mobile phones now account for nearly 50% of consumer Internet usage, and mobile usage is growing rapidly world-wide.

As Web site operators watch mobile usage grow, the next thought is usually:  “let’s build a mobile app!”  It’s a good instinct, but I think it’s also a great way to waste a lot of time and money.  Leaping in without any insight on mobile usage is a good way to build the wrong app.  Also, it’s easy to end up with something that only partially replicates Web site functionality, frustrating users and creating two different UIs to maintain in parallel.

For a better strategy, Facebook is a good example to study.  They took way too long to focus on mobile, but their sequencing is a good place to start.  (Note:  this advice is really for existing Web sites).

Following their example, here’s a “starter” mobile plan:

Step #1:  Mobile-enable your Web site.  Remember m.facebook.com?  You can get pretty far these days with just HTML5.  Use your mobile usage data to figure out what areas to prioritize (Google Analytics will break out mobile usage).  Consider both tablet and phone cases:  depending on your application, you may want to deal with them separately.

Step #2:  Develop a native app, with generous use of embedded browser widgets.  Consider which app elements must to be native for the best experience, and do the rest using embedded browser widgets (e.g. WebKit).  Most of your app will actually be HTML5 served from your servers, and you can change content on the fly without having to do an approval cycle with Apple (which can take weeks).

You should be able to leverage the HTML5 work you did in step 1.  Use your existing mobile usage data to prioritize Android vs iPhone and phone vs tablet.

Step #3:  Go 100% native.  (If needed)  At this point, you should have a good sense of the most important use cases, platforms, and form factors.

Edit to taste!

Paul Graham on Hardware

I think Paul Graham’s recent essay on The Hardware Renaissance was very interesting:

 …one of the most conspicuous trends in the last batch was the large number of hardware startups. Out of 84 companies, 7 were making hardware. On the whole they’ve done better than the companies that weren’t.

After doing software for nearly 20 years, I’ve now been spending most of my time on hardware, and especially, hardware projects that have a large software component.  (See my post last year on the Coming Bits and Atoms Disruption.)

As the essay points out:  it’s getting cheaper & easier to design and build hardware projects.  I think we’re going to see a lot of interesting products over the next few years.

3D Printing: Hype and Opportunity

If you haven’t seen a 3D printer yet, you’re missing something amazing. The technology has been around for a while, but recent efforts by the “maker” community have driven printer prices down.  It’s revolutionizing rapid prototyping: you can go from CAD model to holding something in your hand in a few hours.

However, there’s also a lot of hype surrounding 3D printing:  some imagine a “printer in every home” or replacing traditional manufacturing methods.

I’m skeptical.  3D printing has some very serious limitations: printers are slow, with no economies of scale. One-hundred parts takes almost exactly 100x as long and 100x the cost of one part. Even at low quantities, traditional manufacturing methods (e.g. injection molded plastic) are often more attractive.

Also, printer technologies vary widely, with a range of materials (plastic, metal, ceramic), durability, fidelity and color options. It’s not like paper printing, where anything that puts colored bits on paper gets you in the game – different 3D printing technologies have very different applications.

Hype aside, I think 3D printing will be disruptive in a few application areas:

  • 100% custom “quantity one” parts (e.g. anything that touches the human body)
  • Low-quantity parts. Examples: the long-tail of repair parts no longer manufactured, or “parametric parts”, where the design is a function of several parameters, and it’s not possible or practical to stock all combinations.
  • Parts that can’t be manufactured any other way. What’s most interesting:  3D printers control every bit of the part volume, including the “insides”.  Most “solid” parts aren’t solid at all; they usually have a honeycomb-like interior structure to save material, but that structure could be anything.  Now, you can build parts that have interior structure that you can’t build with traditional methods.

This last category is especially exciting, and I’m hoping to see interesting designs as 3D printers get more widely deployed.