Mobile browsers give power to the people
Published NZ Herald February 9
At Xero's partner conference in Taupo at the weekend, the online accounting software provider demonstrated taking pictures of invoices or receipts with a mobile phone camera and sending them to their Xero account.
This will be the year business embraces smartphones, and that means some hard choices for software developers.
Do they create versions of their applications to be downloaded on to the iPhone, the Android, the Windows phone or whatever, or do they make sure their web applications work on phone browsers?
Xero's Rod Drury is firmly in the latter camp, but he's willing to create a native phone application when there is no other choice.
"We see mobile as an extension of our core platform. It may seem attractive to go in and develop pure mobile applications, but it's hard to think of ones which will be an enduring business.
"We have built our (Xero web) application in HTML5, but you can't access some features in the hardware like the camera," Drury says.
"It's a nice compromise. We maintain our investment in the core platform, but we can deploy specific features as applications and get access to the native phone hardware."
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Xero used an open source mobile development framework called PhoneGap to compile the camera application, which created a positive buzz in Taupo.
"Instead of expense claims meaning a three or four hour catch-up on the last day of the month, people will be able to take a picture of the receipt as they leave the cafe or get out of the taxi in Sydney and send it off to where their accountant can pick it up."
Drury says Xero has largely completed the task of building its accounting engine for the web, and is now looking at more rich features.
"The big direction is mobility so we are asking what are the mobile scenarios our customers will use."
Apart from expense claims, Drury says there is business potential in the fact most phones know where they are.
"We are keen to build a location layer over everything we do. We have enabled geocoding for our contacts.
"That means you can get maps. It also leads to being able to report which regions revenue is coming from."
He says developers need to take advantage of the investment made by companies like Google, rather than try to compete or replicate cloud-based services.
For example, Google Places is overtaking Yellow Pages as a source of business listings.
Matthew Miller from Havelock North-based web development firm Mogul has also been weighing the pros and cons of mobile web apps versus native mobile apps.
He says a native mobile app is best suited for gaming and when the app needs to access hardware features of the device, such as the camera, accelerometer, GPS, or FM radio.
Native mobile apps need to be programmed for each mobile operating system, putting developers on the path of constant maintenance and upgrading as the systems develop.
Because the user downloads the app from the operating system manufacturer's marketplace, the developer must jump through whatever hoops the manufacturer puts up.
In contrast, while a web app working through the phone's browser may not be as well integrated with the device's hardware because it's not written specifically for that device, it's cheaper to develop and maintain ... write once, run anywhere.
"Native phone app development is inherently riskier than web apps," Miller says.
"Some people call mobile app development a crap shoot, because for the few apps that take off, there are thousands of apps out there that get used once and never again."
He says demand is growing from clients to incorporate mobile devices into their digital strategy, but the big drivers in smartphone uptake are social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and content consumption such as news or celebrity gossip feeds, rather than specific business apps.
"The mobile browsers are a lot more powerful than people give them credit for, so the important thing for developers is to make sites look good on mobile," Miller says.
Mogul has produced a website for the