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Part Two: Going mobile

Forecasting the future of mobile Web Add to ...

For small and medium-sized businesses, one of the most difficult aspects of building a mobile strategy is predicting where the industry is heading.

The mobile Web is one of the fastest growing segments of the technology industry today; in fact, some analysts believe smart phones will hit the one-billion unit mark some time in the next two years. But that growth means just about every aspect of the market is in flux. If you built a mobile strategy one year ago today, chances are you didn't take into account Apple's wildly popular iPad, or the slew of tablets that followed suit, or the rise of smart phones powered by Google's Android operating system - all of which are fixtures of the mobile market today.

So in designing a mobile strategy, it often helps to forecast what consumers are likely to do in the near future.

Polar Mobile, a Toronto-based firm that designs smart phone applications for clients such as Time magazine and CBS Sports, has just released their take on where the mobile market is headed. The overriding theme of the report is fragmentation - simply put, no single player will dominate the market. Even though Research In Motion currently sits atop the U.S. smart phone market, for example, its share of that market has been steadily dropping, largely at the expense of Android-powered phones. Google's own operating system is responsible for much of the fragmentation in the market. The company has released seven versions of the Android operating system in less than two years. That, combined with the fact that multiple manufacturers build Android phones, means there are myriad flavours of devices flooding the market today.

The same trends are likely to take shape in the growing tablet market; an industry expected to generate 55-million unit sales in 2011. While the iPad reigned supreme in 2010, a slew of competitors is expected to put up good fights. RIM will release its PlayBook, and Google is expected to optimize Android for tablet computers. HP is also expected to take another shot at the tablet, likely with a new operating system based on software the company acquired when it purchased Palm earlier this year.

All the growth and fragmentation means more headaches for small and medium-sized businesses looking to establish mobile presences. Indeed, optimizing mobile content for all the expected smartphone and tablet platforms could prove cost- and time-prohibitive for many companies with limited resources. As a result, many companies may simply choose to build a bare bones mobile site guaranteed to work on any recent platform. Or the mobile Web may follow the lead of the traditional Web: companies may begin optimizing their sites for the three or four most popular platforms, essentially hedging their bets, with the potential of missing out on a certain segment of users who don't use those platforms.

Perhaps the brightest hope for unification of the mobile Web is the growing prominence of HTML5, the Web programming language adopted by firms such as Google. Because applications designed in HTML5 can be run on browsers, rather than specific operating systems, they have the potential of breaking down the walls between proprietary technologies such as Apple's iPhone and RIM's BlackBerry software. But even if HTML5 catches on in a big way, the proliferation of mobile devices is likely to continue.

Alongside the technical hurdles small and medium-sized businesses face with the rise of the mobile Web are social challenges. The Polar report predicts that, increasingly, businesses will become less concerned with how many mobile users they have, and more concerned with how active those users are. Data from sites such as Facebook consistently shows that users who become more engaged with a brand - by joining the brand's fan page, for example - are not only more likely to spend money on that brand, but also to recommend it to their friends. As such, business owners will likely turn their attention to engaging their customers using the new tools available on mobile platforms. For example, GPS data available on most new tablets and smartphones makes it easier to build user communities based on location, or to offer specific users deals and coupons based on where they are at any given moment.

As a result, business owners who want to build a robust mobile presence will want to ensure their product is as easy to share on social networks as it is to use. Fragmentation may be the headline theme of the mobile Web's growth, but the longer-term trend may well be a move to a far more social Web.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series continues with a new post every Thursday for the next week. Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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