Is the Term ‘Mobile First’ Becoming Outmoded?

on March 18, 2016

Over the past few years, ‘Mobile First’ has been the rage. Attach ‘mobile first’ to a VC pitch and the valuations multiply, the way “dotcom”, “so-lo-mo”, “cloud-based”, and “big data” did in their heydays. But while designing for mobile remains a key part of any development strategy, I think the concept of ‘mobile first’ and ‘mobile only’ are becoming outmoded and will come to apply only to specialized situations and apps.

The idea of mobile first is to design an online experience for mobile web before designing it for the desktop web. In many cases, it has come to mean something more radical, such as designing almost exclusively for a mobile device or being ‘mobile-centric’, which means development efforts have been prioritized for mobile. The reason of course, has been the tremendous growth in the usage of mobile at the expense of time spent on PCs and other screens such as TVs. But while mobile data consumption continues to rise exponentially, mainly because of video and rich media, the shift in consumption (or cannibalization) has started to level off.

Why is this? Well, it looks like the evolution to the Steve Jobs’ “post-PC” era is taking a bit of a pause or is perhaps weaving in a bit of a different direction than he anticipated. While sales of laptops and PCs are not exactly a growth market, the market isn’t dying, either. Instead, we are seeing a shift toward thinner client devices, with apps and content in the cloud. Look at the success, for example, that Chromebooks have had in certain market segments, such as K-12 education. We are also seeing an evolution of the tablet market, with some successful products, such as the Surface, making progress in combining the best of both worlds. Tablets are fantastic content/media consumption devices and are great for certain occupations such as real estate or pharmaceutical sales. But, for the vast majority of professionals, the PC reigns and the smartphone/tablet is ancillary.

Another factor has been the steady growth and improvement in the quality of Web apps and responsive design, where content adapts to the screen of the moment. This seems to have killed the native app vs. HTML5 debate, at least as far as this being a zero sum game is concerned. It appears to me these will all co-exist for the next couple of years, as the locus of innovation is less on hardware than on software and user experience evolution.

So what does this mean? I think the focus will be less on delivering a ‘mobile first’ experience and more on optimizing for a multi-screen experience, or the “screen of the moment”. Let’s face it: if we were naming the smartphone today, we’d call it a portable computer, rather than a smartphone (to someone under the age of 25, what’s a phone, anyway?). That device has tremendous and unique value: always with you, always on, location-enabled, and becoming more useful for more things every day. So, developing for the evolving capabilities of these portable computers is critical. And there’s likely to be a lot of action over the next few years on combining the tablet/laptop/Chromebook form factors in some way.

We should also pay attention to the role of the TV in all this. As content moves a la carte, cloud-based, and less linear, with better search/discovery and more interactivity, the device formerly known as the “TV that sits in your den” might instead be the 60-inch screen that you use and easily moves around your home. Or, the image that projects on a large surface.

The idea of ‘mobile first’ is evolving to a ‘multi-screen’ strategy. And I’m sure someone will come up with a better term for it. But the action will be evolving online content and apps to adjust, on a dynamic basis, for the portable computing device and context of the moment.