Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Application vs. app

One of the key considerations, in my mind, about deploying ANY new platform is the availability and compelling need for a particular application. I'm specifically using the word "application" rather than "app" at this point because to me they are different in key ways. An application is, in mind, a particular capability that is available through a tool or platform that has a meaningful impact on someone's work. Obviously in education, the overall goal of our work is to improve teaching and learning. That happens in a number of ways (instruction, assessment, evaluation, reflection, research, information management, communication, etc.)

Ideally, we all want members of our communities (teachers, students, administrators, staff, parents) to be able to access the various applications we provide in as many different ways as possible. For example, we want parents and students to be able to access our student information portals using PCs, Macs, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc. Obviously, there are limits (someone using IE5 on Windows 98 or Mac OS 9 is most likely going to be out of luck), but in general, we want our most important tools/applications to be as accessible as possible.

The "appification" of the web is the antithesis of this, because an app is something that is tied a specific platform (iOS, Android, BlackBerry, etc.)  If we're lucky, an app might be available for multiple platforms, but in many cases it is exclusive to one particular platform or another. Apps have been great for the consumer because they are generally cheap, simple to purchase and install, and add functionality to mobile devices previously unheard of. However, they are not necessarily great to an organization looking to make an application or tool available to the greatest number of users in their community. Should we assume that every organization has the funding for the latest and greatest gadget running the shiniest new version of their mobile platform? Do we believe that all members of our community have access to that platform?

Here is where I really think that we as technology and education leaders can make a difference and contribute to the conversation. If we explain why a more accessible application/service/tool is better for our communities, then we have an opportunity to have a powerful impact on decisions. We also have the influence to push our vendors and partners to keep this in mind when developing the latest version of their "must have" applications. It also lowers development costs for them. Can you imagine trying to develop for and support all these different platforms (objective C for iOS, Java for Android, etc.)

So, my ideal is for applications that build their user interfaces using web standards like HTML 5 and CSS 3 (notice I purposefully excluded Flash), rather than going down the app road. If done properly, these applications will be supported by any device running a modern browser (IE9, Chrome, Firefox 4, Safari), including desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets, phones and handheld devices.

I don't consider myself a "real" developer or coder, but I do have a firm grasp of HTML and CSS. Here is some information and a few demonstrations of how a web interface can adapt to different devices or form factors by using "responsive web design" principles. Try out the examples in a modern browser (IE9, Chrome, Safari, Firefox 4) and adjust the width of the browser window. You will see the page adapt accordingly based on the width of the window. Also, try them out on your favorite iDevice or Android gadget. I'm hoping that this is where the future lies. We just need to help it become reality.

Here's an article from A List Apart talking about the "responsive design" approach. It's a little developer focused, but very interesting, http://www.alistapart.com/articles/responsive-web-design/


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