Multi-Device, Multi-Platform, Companion Apps

on December 10, 2013
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The heart and soul of any good piece of application software—regardless of the device on which it runs—is its ability to allow you to achieve a task, find a piece of information or essentially get something done. Well-written software is built from a solid awareness of the steps that go into achieving a particular outcome and provides the features and functions that an end user needs and/or wants to follow those steps and attain their desired goal—whether that’s creating a digital work of art, chasing dragons, or finding directions to your favorite restaurant.

Most applications are, understandably, designed to achieve all of those tasks on their own—that is, all the functions necessary to complete the desired goal lives within the software itself—although it may access external data sources—and runs on the device for which the application was written. One notable exception to this rule is software plug-ins, which can provide additional functionality to a “host” application environment: for example, image filtering tools for Adobe Photoshop or audio processing add-ons for digital audio workstation software like Cakewalk’s Sonar or Apple’s Logic. Plug-ins, however, run within the same environment and on the same device as the home program.

A more important trend that is starting to emerge is the arrival of multi-device, multi-platform companion applications. These are apps that run on devices other than the host, yet work hand-in-hand with the host application, allowing the separate devices to more easily or more fully achieve a task than either device could do on its own. These types of apps represent a potentially huge new opportunity for app developers on all types of platforms that, I believe, could transform the world of mobile—and PC—software. For one thing, they allow applications—and individuals—to easily cross the gap between different platforms and devices. Want an Android or iOS app that truly works with your Windows PC? No problem—at least conceptually.

In fact, because companion apps acknowledge and embrace the multi-device, multi-platform reality that we virtually all now live with every day, they represent an exciting path for the future. Plus, they avoid the all too common problem of trying to adapt a popular application on one device to another by just building a cut-down—or beefed up—version of the app for the new device. A well-conceived, well-written companion application takes advantage of the unique capabilities, input characteristics and other functions of each platform, and yet lets you more fully achieve or enjoy the task at hand with your set of devices. (Plus, it doesn’t worry about the tedious process of porting or trying to duplicate functionality on another device that isn’t ideally suited for it.) In a word, it makes these often disjointed set of devices and experiences work as a system.

For example, as a musician who writes and arranges songs for my band, I’ve been using MakeMusic’s Finale application on a Windows PC for literally decades. But about a year-and-a-half ago, the company introduced Finale SongBook for the iPad, which takes the music notation files created on a PC and lets you view them digitally on an iPad—turning that iOS-based device into an easily searchable, highly readable digital music library and music stand. It’s a great example of achieving a higher level of capability by extending the functionality of a core application across devices and platforms. A completely different example is DreamWorks’ new Dragons Adventure game for Nokia’s new Windows RT-based Lumia tablets. The game features a clever integration of Nokia’s navigation data into the environment, but even more importantly, DreamWorks also created a Windows Phone-based application that parents can use to build environments or tweak other settings that can be sent over to the game running on the tablet. It’s a simple, yet highly effective way to get the devices—and the people using those devices—working together.

Now, you could argue that companion applications aren’t a completely new idea—but I will counter that mobile-focused, cross-platform, functionality-optimized apps are a relatively recent phenomena and one that I believe will have some exciting and important new entrants in 2014.