Is the Term ‘Mobile First’ Becoming Outmoded?

Mark Lowenstein / March 18th, 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.

Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.
  • “Look at the success, for example, that Chromebooks have had in certain market segments, such as K-12 education.”

    Only because parents like myself haven’t been able to kill it off and not for a lack of trying. Google has inserted itself beyond our reach and we’ve had no success in getting our privacy and data mining concerns addressed.

    While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks sold to schools. This allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords. Google doesn’t first obtain permission from students or their parents and since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are unable to prevent Google’s data collection.

    https://www.eff.org/press/releases/google-deceptively-tracks-students-internet-browsing-eff-says-complaint-federal-trade

    To get around the rules of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Google pushed school officials to be classified as a “school official”, giving them full access to student personally information (PII) including full names and addresses.

    What Does FERPA Require if PII from Students’ Education Records is Disclosed to a Provider?

    It depends. Because of the diversity and variety of online educational services, there is no universal answer to this question. Subject to exceptions, the general rule under FERPA is that a school or district cannot disclose PII from education records to a provider unless the school or district has first obtained written consent from the parents (or from “eligible students,” i.e., those who are 18 years of age or older or attending a postsecondary school). Accordingly, schools and districts must either obtain consent, or ensure that the arrangement with the provider meets one of FERPA’s exceptions to the written consent requirement.

    While disclosures of PII to create user accounts or to set up individual student profiles may be accomplished under the “directory information” exception, more frequently this type of disclosure will be made under FERPA’s school official exception. “Directory information” is information contained in the education records of a student that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed (see 34 CFR § 99.3 definition of “directory information”). Typical examples of directory information include student name and address. To disclose student information under this exception, individual school districts must establish the specific elements or categories of directory information that they intend to disclose and publish those elements or categories in a public notice.

    http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/Student%20Privacy%20and%20Online%20Educational%20Services%20%28February%202014%29.pdf

    • obarthelemy

      Is there anyone who is *not* doing the same ? Win10 is famous for having introduced essentially the same tracking, iOS tracks pretty much everything by UID, websites and apps do their utmost to do the same… even law enforcement is doing warrantless mass surveillance.

      At least Google offers GoogleCloud-free FOSS versions of its basic OSes (Chromium and AOSP) for people who want to avoid the tracking cost of Google’s free cloud apps & services. Not many takers.

      • Obey rides to rescue

        You ask : “Is there anyone who is *not* doing the same?”

        Why is it so hard for you to understand that what Google (the advertising company) does and what other entities you list are doing is NOT the same?

        • obarthelemy
          • Obey rides to rescue

            how is your four year old example (pre full-device encryption) of location data stored on the phone even remotely similar to what Google does?

            You would make a terrible lawyer, as you have no ability to make useful analogies.

          • obarthelemy

            Missed the “How Apple tracks your location without consent” in the title ? Matters as an example of Apple doing it too.

          • Obey rides to rescue

            You didn’t actually read the article, just the headline.

            Apple doesn’t track this data, the phone does. All this points out is how important device encryption by default is for your privacy, not that Apple is compiling user profiles to sell to advertisers.

            You must be really desperate to defend Google if you see this as remotely similar.

          • obarthelemy

            Data sent to Apple (backups and such) does not use the device encryption. Wonder why they do that, an why people are blissfully unaware…

          • Obey rides to rescue

            “Wonder why they do that..”

            No you don’t. And you wouldn’t understand if you did.

            The article pre-dates iOS 5,6,7,8, and 9.

            This is all over your head, but I guess someone has to tell you:

            Apple is a manufacturer, designer, and provider of equipment and services that utilize location to determine whether they can sell you and what price you should pay for a music track, or a television show, or a movie; or how Siri will answer “where’s the nearest gas station?” or what the time is, or the weather, or what music you’ve set up to play when you’re driving to work or working out or about to go to bed, etc.

            The motives for Apple to collect some real world data in the early development of these services is obvious to non-idiots. Furthermore, none of this data WAS accessible without physical possession of the phone or a computer containing its backup. All of which are NOW encrypted by default. Everything in this article is ancient history.

            You can’t comprehend how “motives” matter. Nor can you seem to digest how some flaw that may have been true four years & five operating systems ago is not indicative of a pattern.

            You find nefarious evil where there is none and fail to see it where there is. Buy a goddamn clue, Googletroll.

          • obarthelemy

            So Apple did it, maybe does it still, w/o asking. But that’s Good. When Google does it, *with* asking, that’s bad.

            I’m sure you have an in into Apple psyche and can for sure tell us of their motive. I don’t presume to, I just look at facts. That makes me a troll, suuuuuure.

          • Obey rides to rescue

            You look uncomprehendingly at select facts and ignore all context.

            You are the epitome of a troll.

          • obarthelemy

            And you are the epitome of a naive PR victim, but that’s OK.

          • Obey rides to rescue

            I’d rather be naive than stupid.

          • obarthelemy

            the first kind of requires a good dollop of the second, FYI.

          • pk_de_cville

            “I just look at facts [from 2011].”

          • obarthelemy

            Well, the OP is making an issue of Google’s character. My fact goes to Apple’s. Has Apple’s changed since 2011 ?

          • pk_de_cville

            Come on, O,

            Aren’t you the one who’s /always/ reminding us that Apple’s not the same without Steve Jobs? (RIP Oct 5, 2011.)

            Please show some ability to make a difference without being so ‘creative’ with your arguments. You know. It’s OK to stay quiet every now and then.

            Didn’t your mother teach you not to open your mouth unless you had something of value to add?

          • obarthelemy

            ??? You’re delusional, or lying, or both.

            1- When, ever, have I said anything about Apple changing since Jobs’s death ? Let alone “/always/” ?
            2- I actually barely ever mention Jobs, mostly because he’s dead.
            3- Incidentally, *you* are saying Apple changed since Jobs’ death then ? Or only when they did Bad Stuff before you’re trying to pawn that off on Jobs ? “The dead can’t speak for themselves”, nice move, intellectually and ethically speaking. Why am I not surprised ?

            Please show some ability for rational thinking and fact checking. Don’t put words into other people’s mouth because they’d suit your absurd narrative, don’t ascribe issues to dead people.

            And don’t give lessons to others until you’ve taken a long, hard, look at yourself. I think you should take your own advice. A few times over.

          • pk_de_cville

            You never mentioned Steve Jobs and the change his death has made to Apple? I recall several times someone’s argued that, but maybe you’ve never written about Steve Jobs as you say. If so, my mistake.

            But thanks for your earlier merry link to April 2011 and your assertion that Apple hasn’t changed since then. Still evil, right?

          • Obey rides to rescue

            No. There is no way to determine if anything has changed. None. So, nothing has changed.

            Thus spoke Obeytrollby. So it was written, so it must be so.

          • Obey rides to rescue

            Gee. It would be impossible to determine if Apple was gathering data from iOS devices without user permission. There is simply no way to determine this and NO ONE has thought to try.

            Obey’s gotta be right. We must assume the worse. ‘Cuz he knows about facts ‘n stuff.

          • pk_de_cville

            Missed the date time on your link?

            “Apr 20, 2011 3:55pm EDT” – 41/2 years ago

            Please use your mind to create really great and relevant comments.

            You’re smart enough to be something other than a troll. All it requires is to avoid juvenile inane deception like this link from 2011.

          • obarthelemy

            So what ? HAs Apple deeply changed since then, owned up to doing something underhanded and provided proof they’ll never do it again ? Or is it the same Apple as 4 yrs ago ?
            Did anyone amongst this local Appel fans cohort rise any issue back then ?

          • pk_de_cville

            It’s simple.

            Google is in the business of shaping and delivering customer info to advertisers – 90% of their income comes from that.

            Apple is in the business of shaping and delivering devices to discerning customers. (Yes, ‘discerning’ is applicable because Apple devices earn premium pricing and high profits.)

            G sells user info. A sells devices and services and publicly asserts it doesn’t sell user info.

          • obarthelemy

            “discerning”… you mean “easily parted from their money”, and whatever that entails… ;-p

  • obarthelemy

    I submit “transformat”, which should be about as successful as my PoCoCo entry for “pocket connected computer” to obsolete the “smartphone” misnomer. “Only transformats get on my PoCoCo” should be 2016’s tagline…

    Mobile has won: what does “Mobile first” mean when what most people wish their Windows apps looked and felt just like their phones’, and that they could use either transparently ? I’m tired of having to run an Android VM because Windows apps and web
    apps are not as good as Android’s, when they even exist. The Windows Mail client I prefer is AOSP’s Mail running on Android running on a VM running on Windows. Ditto RSS readers. There must be a better way.

    Plus the low-hanging Mobile fruit has probably been picked. What’s left is more networky stuff, for which cross-platform is more important.

    And there’s app fatigue: my homescreens are tightly managed and full (one is widgets, the other is another widget, 5 folders, vital apps such as Flashlight, leaving room for 6 apps…) that homescreen spot is competitive. A nice desktop or web app is less cumbersome to try since I’m probably not keeping it aayway.

  • Folks- I appreciate your reading my columns, and welcome thoughtful commentary and debate. But of the 26 ‘comments’ here, most are a silly catfight between a couple of individuals, containing some personal, demeaning, and inappropriate comments which, though not personally directed at me, I would still prefer not to have associated with my columns. Thanks.

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