Top tips for deciding what level of phone to develop for

There are a number of very good reasons you should be developing for mobile. It’s an incredibly fast-growing medium. In fact, mobile web has already caught up to desktop usage. For many people, mobile is the sole means of accessing the web. Mobile devices are “always on” and incredibly personal. The platform gives you the opportunity to put out a low cost, high-volume product and, importantly, it rewards you for being creative.

That’s all well and good, but what kind of mobile phone should you code for? Answering this question isn’t all that simple. Least of all because the answer depends so much on what your product is and who you’re aiming it at. This is an especially important consideration in emerging markets where, despite immense growth, smartphones and super phones are still in the minority.

According to Google software engineer Bruno Albuquerque, there are a few things you should remember about each category of phone before deciding which to develop for.

Entry Phones:
Entry phones still account for a large percentage of phones in emerging markets. They are, however, very limited. Entry devices have little or no data access, a very small screen and no support for installed apps.

This means that your developing is largely limited to SMS. In other words, all you’re going to be doing is coding simple and short plaintext commands or responses. SMS also has a whole host of its own issues. These include high latency, which means that delivery can be unreliable, with messages sometimes taking hours to arrive.

One of the biggest complaints about SMS is that, for the service being offered, it is massively expensive, so you should bear this in mind before deciding on SMS as you medium of choice.

Albuquerque also maintains that your server needs to be extremely concise to be effective when it comes to providing and SMS-based product.

Feature Phones:
This category of phone accounts for an even larger percentage of devices in emerging markets than entry phones. It offers developers significantly more opportunities than entry phones, in that it actually has the ability to send and receive data.

Feature phones do, however, suffer from some of the same small screen-size issues as entry phones.

On the other hand, they can handle some offline apps but connectivity is limited to Edge and MMS.

You’re also pretty much limited to HTML when it comes to coding online content for a feature phone.

There is the capability for native apps but they tend to run off J2ME and BREW platforms with no real across-the-board standard.

For the purposes of this article, smartphone denotes phones like the more basic ones offered by BlackBerry and those in the Nokia series 40 range.

Smartphones are on the increase around the world and especially in emerging markets. Their medium-sized screens allow for some level of User Interface (UI) and they have some installed and offline apps.

They also offer better connectivity with Edge, 3G and Wi-Fi and you can include some HTML and Javascript coding. Albuquerque cautions, however, that JavaScript tends to run incredibly slowly on this category of devices.

As is the case with feature phones, there’s no real standard for native apps.

Super Phones:
This category of phone includes any of those running full-blown mobile operating systems like iOS and Android.

Super phones account for a very low percentage of phones in emerging markets. They have really fast CPU capability. This CPU capability does, however have a trade-off: You have to be incredibly mindful of battery usage if you want to build a product designed for super phones.

They do, however, offer a broad range of platforms you can build web apps on, including HTML, HTML 5 and Flash (with the exception of iOS), which also allow for offline access giving you more freedom in your coding.

Native apps on super phones, on the other hand, tend to use Java, C++ and Objective C.

The enhanced data connectivity of super phones through 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi also gives you more freedom, as does the fact that you can include Bluetooth connectivity and GPS functionality in your code.

You also have to bear in mind that you’ll be developing for a larger screen, with some phones having screens capable of running video up to 720p.

Super phones allow for complex user interfaces. Albuquerque cautions, however, not to get too carried away, saying that simple UIs are still better.

Market Segment:
When it comes to the higher categories of phone you should always be aware that the mobile web needs constant connection or HTML5 offline storage and that not all mobile browsers are born equal. To do real desktop, style web applications “you need HTML5,” stresses Albuquerque.

When it comes to native apps, developers need to be aware that they have to be specific to each OS, that you need to use different features and user interface styles and the different distribution channels for each OS.



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