ELearning Market Update – July 2011

Mobile learning: do you really need to go native?

This month we look at the fast changing nature of the mobile content development market. We have previously highlighted the debate around developing native apps for specific devices such as the iPhone or web apps, which work across multiple devices. This debate heated up recently with the Financial Times snubbing Apple and the App Store by launching a new mobile web app that runs entirely out of a web browser.

Looks like an app... works like an app... but...

The new FT web app operates very much like a native app when accessed by an iPhone or iPad. The new web app was built in HTML5 and takes advantage of developments in the technology and various features available in the latest iOS version of the Safari browser including offline caching of stories, subscription storage, scrubber menus, smooth scrolling and navigation, action buttons and pop-ups.

Rob Grimshaw, managing director of FT.com commented: "There isn't a single feature in the native app we haven't been able to replicate in the Web app."

Why not go native?

The FT’s shift toward a web-app strategy was largely because the publisher felt it was too onerous to create lots of different apps for the many emerging devices and operating systems. The FT was also unhappy with some of the terms of the Apple App store and the revenue taken by Apple. A major benefit of this strategy according to MB Christie, head of product development for the FT was also to “un-tether ourselves from app stores.”

What does it mean for the rest of us?

We see pros and cons to the web app approach.

Quicker to market: With a web app you can simply point people to your web app with no submission and approval required by the Apple App store. For example, you can get the new FT app here http://app.ft.com/ though you will need to subscribe to access FT daily content. With web apps users must be clearly instructed to download a desktop ‘quick link’ as well as expand their local cache to accommodate the offline use of stories and articles.

...But potentially more marketing effort: If you are building learning apps for sale then publishing directly means you will need to promote your new web app very heavily. By contrast an App Store is a shopping centre filled with customers that can make impulse purchases with a smooth billing, download and install facility that is difficult to replicate online.

More tools: There are many options for content developers including tools and frameworks, which produce apps for multiple devices such as Titanium and PhoneGap (the open source and free authoring tool that develops apps for multiple platforms). Existing elearning tool providers such as Adobe and Articulate are also developing new versions of their popular authoring tools to allow publishing formats, which will work on multiple mobile devices. The new Articulate Storyline tool publishes content out to HTML5, much like the FT web app, and looks great on an iPad.

What about Flash? If Flash works consistently on mobile devices, then this further opens up the potential for app market. Flash support is starting to appear on various non-Apple tablets. But it’s not what you’d call a robust solution just yet – there's an interesting article on Flash on the Motorola Xoom in Wired this month. You might want to avoid being a beta tester of Flash on these devices until they’ve dealt with some of the 1.0 issues.

It is still early days in terms of mobile content development and we expect to see further significant developments in the coming months and years.

Doing interesting stuff with native or web apps for learning?

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By Steve Rayson