Sunday, June 7, 2009

Is Mobile the New Internet?

An interesting thing occurred the other day that got me thinking.

I spent Saturday evening with a friend wandering the local Microcenter while he considered purchasing an iMac. He was making this purchase so that he could put a greater focus on his work as an iPhone developer. Naturally we were talking about the topic while the salesman was helping answer questions regarding the machine. The salesman mentioned that he too was studying iPhone development. While he was not a full time programmer he had some hobby background in Java and other languages and really wanted to write something for the iPhone.

We left the store to get dinner and when we came back a different salesman was working. Again the topic of iPhone development came up and again this salesman said he was also looking into it. His background was mostly PHP and a bit of VB, again a hobbyist.

Having had two different people, in the same night both mention their desire to learn iPhone development I said to my friend "Wow that's kinda amazing. Two people, neither of which are full time programmers and the iPhone is driving them to learn programming. When was the last time a new technology really drove a growth in hobby programmers?" His response - "The internet."

So the thought occurs to me, is this the dawn of a new trend in computing so significant that we as professional programmers need to keep up lest we fall behind? Every so often something comes along that can separate the people who are always learning, always focused from the people who aren't. We saw this when mainframe developers suddenly found themselves writing object oriented code. We saw it again when "win-forms" (or equivalent) programmers were asked to write for the web. Will mobile be the next fundamental shift in paradigm?

I'm banking on yes, and here's why.

The rise in smart phone use (and let's be honest, the invention of the iPhone) has changed consumer behavior so fundamentally that the lack of a working mobile website can now be considered a competitive disadvantage. Consumers may not have yet reached the point where they would switch from one company to another based on the strength of their mobile offerings, but i suspect if presented to some consumers during the initial purchase process it would weigh into their decision.

Would a day trading stock buyer manage their portfolio through a brokerage firm without mobile access?
How about using a bank where you can't check your balance on your phone?

Additionally I think we have reached the point where businesses can see the smart phone replacing some of the functionality that laptops have served in the past. I used to work for a fairly large insurance company. At the time all of their claims representatives carried laptops and digital cameras so that they could document vehicles as they inspected them, and over the cell network upload that information to the internal claims management system. This had the disadvantage of being bulky and expensive to maintain / repair. The laptops and camera broke frequently, often requiring a complete replacement to the tune of $300-$1500. Replace that with a $200 iPhone, blackberry or palm pre and you have a low cost, easy to carry device capable of doing everything you could do before.

So is mobile the new internet? Should we all be buying "Learn iPhone development in 21 days" books, or is it a passing fad?

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