Cross-Platform Development

Though BlackBerry is no longer top dog in the smartphone circuit, RIM is making a significant investment in the tablet market with its recently launched PlayBook. And RIM isn’t the only one. Microsoft’s Windows 7 smartphone is making some headway in terms of adoption, and Android — the smartphone champion for the moment — has dozens of tablet devices to challenge the iPads’ short but certain dominance.

So how does an agency decide for which device to develop? The free, aforementioned solutions are likely adequate for many agencies. But where does one begin if the goal is a more robust app or perhaps one for internal use?

A possible solution is the AT&T Mobile Enterprise Applications Platform (MEAP). Though known by most — and loathed by some — as the exclusive carrier for the original iPhone, AT&T’s MEAP can help agencies build non-OS-specific apps, which MEAP then ports to function on Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Palm OS and Windows Mobile.

“It is really an interesting time, because smartphones passed the sales of PCs for the first time,” said Abhi Ingle, vice president of AT&T’s Advanced Enterprise Mobility Solutions Group. “And that happened about two years before it was predicted, which itself was a prediction made only like a year and half before it happened. So it is pretty amazing what has happened in the penetration and adoption of these devices.”

Government has long been deemed a slow mover when it comes to technology adoption. True or not, keeping on top of the wildly fluctuating smartphone and tablet market is tough for any organization.

“What we’ve done is focus on all the elements you need to survive and thrive in a world in which you have to deal with multiple operating systems, a plethora of cloud-delivered applications and you have a situation that you can buy a host of these essentially mobile computers for a very low price,” Ingle said.

MEAP helps dispel the notion, Ingle said, that one must choose a native app and work out from there. He advises that the best way to begin app development is to look at which apps people are using and how they use them.

“It depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” he said. “If it’s a very rich interactive experience, I strongly recommend a native app; if it is a fairly simple experience, I recommend a mobile Web solution; if it is even simpler, like alerting, I would recommend a [short message service] solution.”

With new, fancier devices appearing on the market seemingly every week, many CIOs probably — and rightfully — think they must get a foot in the mobile Web space. And clearly, there are solutions and services to help them take that step.

But what do citizens — the ones for whom all this strategizing and development is ultimately for — think? Are mobile websites and apps really in demand?

Sid Burgess is CEO of LittleGov, an Oklahoma City-based consultancy that aims to help “communities realize their potential through the proper application of planning, innovation and elbow grease.” Burgess also sits on the Oklahoma Technology Review Board. In his opinion, the app rush is overblown and, for many agencies, starting somewhere simpler is a more sensible strategy.

“The majority of cities still don’t have websites even, and so again, we are in a pickle,” he said. “Do we pitch to these towns of 5,000 that don’t have a website to go get a mobile app, and we will maintain the app suite for them and they can put all of their data on there? The problem now is that you have created a new divide between cities that are only mobile and cities that are Web-based. So citizens are going to be confused.”

Start small, Burgess advises. And if you’ve already started, go forward by being specific.

“The smart thing to do is for cities to consider mobile apps as a way to provide niche services like 311,” he said. “But if they don’t have a website, they need to get a website — they need to get updated and they need to continue to update it. That’s what just makes sense to me. I am not a CIO and I certainly don’t have the perspective a lot of guys that have been here a lot longer than me have, but as both the consumer and an advocate, that’s the way I see it.”

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.