Shawn P. McCarthy

COMMENTARY

'Cloud first' giving way to 'mobile first'

The "cloud first" mantra for government is so…2011. These days, you may hear a different phrase a call for "mobile first."

It's fair to say that mobile first development is an idea whose time has come. That doesn't necessary mean that the cloud first ideal will take a backseat to mobile. In fact, the two edicts can play nicely together.

Today, if some agencies consider the mobile user experience at all, it often is just to develop a slightly modified version of their existing traditional Web pages and IT services. That means a Web server's functionality will work, at least minimally, on mobile browsers.


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But the rapid proliferation of mobile devices has flipped this priority, and Web developers have been among the first to notice the new demand. Mobile First is becoming the war cry of those developers because when Web resources are not specifically designed for mobile consumption, functionality can be lost, and the development of new functionality can be complicated.

This makes it especially important that government agencies take a standardized, enterprisewide approach to supporting the stand-alone (and increasingly powerful) applications that run on smart-phone and tablet applications.

This idea has been kicking around for nearly two years. Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the General Services Administration both discussed adopting a mobile first policy. But within that public discussion, federal employees made it clear that, in many cases, they prefer the performance of their traditional PCs over the expanded use of mobility. Part of the debate was whether boosting mobile solutions might cut into that performance level.

But the mobile first mantra continued to gain traction in the government. In late March of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency became one of the more vocal proponents of the idea. EPA CIO Malcolm Jackson announced his agencywide mobile first policy and stressed that mobile access is rapidly on its way to becoming the primary way that people seek government information. Thus, Jackson indicated, it also should be top of mind in terms of agency application development priorities.

It really is time to design information systems first for use by mobile devices because it can be more challenging to design pages and navigation for the small screen, and to limit page and graphic sizes in a coherent way, while also developing display, style sheet and XML rules that reach across the enterprise. By focusing on that first, the next steps can include expanding and augmenting the  Web interface, as needed, for display on regular PCs.

And for IT shops, there's more to targeting mobile devices than just making pages sizes smaller. For example, JavaScript can have significantly different look and feel across various devices. If a Web site uses extensive JavaScript for navigation and information display, it may be important that that agency's Web pages and features be tested for compatibility with multiple mobile device platforms.

Likewise, if a site uses Adobe Flash, the Flash portions of a Web site may not be viewable from iPad and iPhone users, because Apple does not support Flash for those devices.

And when it comes to mobility, IT developers need to make sure that the information displays they create look good on iOS devices, Android devices and virtual desktop systems. The later is important because some agencies will mainly support virtual desktops as their mobile solution of choice, at least for internal employees, because these desktops can be viewed on PCs and mobile devices.

In some case the virtual environment may be all that the IT department is willing to support, and that's what will be viewable on the range of mobile devices rather than developing stand-alone mobile applications for each device. Again, establishing rules for mobile development and testing, right at the beginning of this process, can help an enterprise make the transition smoothly.

And virtual desktops play nicely into the Cloud First environment too. Since the desktop software, including a virtual operating system and associated applications, resides on a remote server, that server can be located anywhere, including any approved cloud host.

But as cloud first becomes a popular buzzword, we also inevitably see consultants and vendors leveraging the term in new ways. Here are a couple of examples:

A San Francisco company called, incidentally, mobile first, which has offered products such as SMS messaging, ringtones and mobile entertainment, has added a Mobile Payment solution to its portfolio. Although it's designed as a service that can be embedded into mobile games, it does provide a streamlined way to process transactions that are requested via a mobile device.

Luke Wroblewski, a former design architecture for Yahoo, published a book called "Mobile First" last year. It's a strategic guide Web design that starts with information presentation and navigation for mobile devices.

Other government offices also are working on ways to boost their participation in mobile computing. The New York City government's Digital Road Map, which was outlined several months ago, includes several ways to promote government content on mobile devices, including ways for libraries to share information on smart phones and mobile readers.

And the HowTo.gov website, sponsored by GSA's Office of Citizen Services & Innovative Technologies, has a Mobile Gov Wiki, which helps federal developers find solid ideas for improving the mobile user experience.

Clearly the launch of EPA's high-profile cloud first edict caught the buzz for showing how government is taking development for mobile platforms seriously. It's important to stress this importance as agencies work to standardize their content development experience.

But there's a lot more going on in the world of mobile first, and other government IT managers will need to pay attention as the Mobile First mantra joins the Cloud First mantra as an important part of future government IT development.



About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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