Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Are we going back to Fat Client for mobile?

It seems that given the poor adoption of mobile web applications that many have assumed that the “solution” is to go back to fat client applications for mobile. The recent blackberry catalog showed nearly 250 mobile applications created for the device. Does the need for offline use, and the challenges of web response time make Fat Client the solution for the mobile user? Is your mobile device out of coverage that often to justify this approach?

Prior wisdom was that the cost of developing, delivering and maintaining fat client client/server applications had relegated them to the world of “legacy” applications. Have the challenges of fat client applications magically disappeared for mobile devices?

The mobile world makes the PC world look homogeneous… no standard screen size, no standard keyboard or navigation approach. While the platform development tool vendors have said that this is all “handled” in their tool-kits, we’ve heard that before with the likes of powerbuilder and other 4GL tools of the past. Do we want mini versions of applications to be built for these mobile devices? Will people actually log in to a mini version of SAP on their blackberry or windows mobile device?

It seems likely that mobile fat clients, like mobile web clients struggle with a similar challenge on the smaller mobile screen. Imagine a 10 screen application that needs to be redeveloped for mobile. Given the limited real estate of the mobile screen (about ¼ the viewing area of a desktop window) the mobile version of the application would become 40 screens.. Now think about the menu trees that you would need to navigate to get anything done. With the smaller size the complexity of navigation multiplies.. on a device that is really tougher to navigate! It is really unlikely that on a device where every keystroke matters that these applications will get used.. it’s tough to imagine fumbling through menus while driving or in front of a customer..

To date, mobile fat clients have tried to fit the Elephant into the dog house.. and while many have been clever in selecting the functions they believe that people need while mobile, they have all failed to get much traction with users. Could be because they make the mobile user learn a new application, in addition to the web/desktop version that they also must use?

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