Multi-Device, Multi-Platform, Companion Apps

Bob O'Donnell / December 10th, 2013

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.

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
  • Bill Smith

    Bob, you should also mention app combinations like Apple’s Logic for OS X/iPad and upcoming Final Cut Pro.

    Nice article, by the way, but the ending seems rather abrupt. Perhaps you can speculate on what some of the entrants might be?

    • Bob O’Donnell

      Bill, yes, I was going to mention the Logic Remote app and Logic but I was nearing my self-imposed word limit and decided to leave it out. It is a great example as well of what I’m talking about however,
      And yes, sorry for the abrupt ending, but I’m trying to keep these posts in the 650-700 word range and was out of space. But as for speculation, I can imagine all kinds of ideas: alternative input device methods for Microsoft Office documents (but not necessarily created by MS), remote controls of PCs or tablets on phones, navigation and sensor-based inputs to PC apps, more types of gaming applications and, I’m sure, lots of other creative ideas that I haven’t even fathomed.

      • Bill Smith

        Bob,

        There is a huge difference between writing a 700 word article, editing a piece down to 700 words and abruptly cutting it short. The first takes skill; the second takes a good editor; the third is an insult to your readers who are investing their time into reading your work.

        I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that a work is best when it says all that needs to be said, nothing more, nothing less.

        If you outline your work (topic sentences and major points), you can very accurately state how many words you need to rough in the piece. Eventually you get to the point where you can outline and estimate in your head.

        The difference between a professional writer and an amateur is that the former writes according to a plan, while the latter plans to write and see what comes out.

        • Bob O’Donnell

          OK, Bill, duly noted.

          • Bill Smith

            By the way, apologies if it seemed as though I were ripping into you. If I weren’t so vested in your article, I wouldn’t have bothered to complain.

            You have a LOT to offer; please don’t deprive us of your talent, in a consumable form.

            By the way, you may want to check out a software package called Scrivener. It’s highly regarded, and great for smoothly moving between research, outline and final prose.

            Thanks again for a great, though abbreviated, article.

          • Bob O’Donnell

            Thanks Bill, I appreciate the kind words.

  • jfutral

    I wish CAD developers would jump on this, too. I use Vectorworks and would love not to have to tote my laptop onsite. They have Service Select and their Nomad app to look at PDFs of drawings on my iPad, but sometimes I need to make slight edits, move a symbol, add a wall that wasn’t there before, etc. Rarely anything major. It would sure be convenient to edit on the app. I wonder how much is needing to rethink their host apps to allow for this?

    Joe

    • Bill Smith

      The issue is that most companies don’t have experience with tablet development. This generally plays out one of four ways:

      1. The company has an intern or junior developer who is fanatical enough to try something new, AND they happen to catch the right person in management at the right time, who allows their skunk works, spare time project to see the light of the day. This will typically result in something awesome, but buggy. If you’re lucky, this is what happens.

      2. The company tasks one of its developers to do something tablet-y. The first version or two will be like boiled dog vomit, but if the company figures out a reason to push forward, you may eventually get something useful out of it.

      3. The company hires an outside consultant to do something tablet-y. The company is generally adept at doing tablet development, but has no clue about the actual application at hand. The result is glitzy, but you can’t do anything useful with it.

      4. A small indie developer makes an application with tablet in mind, and as part of their vision. If the market is large enough, they may self-sustain. If not, the big, established company buys them. This also is a good outcome, but it can take a long time and lots of turmoil.

  • I’m a little late to the thread, but I/we agree with you. Instead of trying to simply port to a smaller screen for example, craft an application experience that is optimized for the device and it’s characteristics. Take advantage of the differences and exploit the value for the user.

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