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Part One: Going mobile

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In this four-part series, we'll look at the explosive growth of smartphones and tablet computers, and why businesses are increasingly turning their attention to the mobile market.

The world is going mobile. And businesses, whether they like it or not, are going to have to do the same.

The rise of smartphones - super-powered cell phones with features such as the ability to view rich multimedia content or access GPS data - has largely changed the way consumers access the Web. In turn, small and medium-sized businesses are starting to see the need to target the growing number of potential customers who access the Web on the go.

There are currently several major players in the smartphone world, each with a different vision of where the industry is headed.

Apple has perhaps the most talked-about product on the market, the iPhone, as well as the most well-stocked mobile applications store in the world.

Research In Motion, which still commands the lion's share of the enterprise smartphone market, has recently turned its attention to attracting general consumers. The Waterloo firm has, in turn, spent considerable effort upgrading the Web browser on its devices, and developing software such as the BlackBerry Messenger.

Google has also entered the market, although with a different strategy. Rather than just focus on developing one device, the company has designed an operating system called Android, customized for smart phones.

Manufacturers ranging from HTC to Motorola have taken advantage of the software to create their own phones. As such, while there's only one line of iPhones and a handful of BlackBerry models, there are myriad Android-powered phones on the market (including Google's own entry, the Nexus smart phone).

In addition, Microsoft has entered the market with its own smartphone operating system, and traditional cell phone giants such as Nokia are beginning to shift their attention to the next-generation smartphone arena as well.

The result is a confusing environment for small and medium-sized business owners who want to cater their on-line offerings to mobile users. Just as a Webmaster must ensure their site's content works on all the major Web browsers, mobile content must also be formatted for various smartphone platforms.

Additionally, designing a mobile application for only one type of smartphone means users of other types of phones won't be able to access it. And because the various smartphone platforms have significant differences, re-purposing an app for another type of smart phone is often anything but straightforward.

But what makes developing a mobile strategy even more challenging is that, increasingly, mobile users aren't just accessing content from their smartphones; they're also using their tablet computers. As a result, a business' mobile strategy must now also consider the growing tablet market. For example, while Apple's iPad runs on an almost-identical version of the iPhone operating system, RIM's upcoming PlayBook runs on entirely new software. Indeed, the operating system powering RIM's tablet will eventually be used on all its future BlackBerrys, making it vital for Web site owners and application developers to tailor their content to the new platform if they want to reach RIM's customers.

The surge of new mobile hardware means business owners now have to consider two new factors when developing their Web presence. The first is how to optimize Web content for mobile devices. Unlike desktops, mobile devices have smaller screen real estate, and often have less processing power to handle high-end graphics or multimedia content. And since many mobile devices are connected to relatively expensive data plans, users may not be keen on downloading megabytes of data just to view a Web site. As such, many sites (including the Globe and Mail) have developed mobile-specific versions. When users access the site from a mobile device, they're automatically redirected to that version, which often contains far fewer pre-loaded images and multimedia.

But business owners may also want to go one step further, creating a smartphone application for their business. Rather than simply altering the Web site for mobile users, apps give businesses the ability to design from scratch a custom experience for their customers. Apps can range from the very simple - a shortcut to the business' Web site, for example - to the very complex. As such, there are countless app developers who specialize in creating apps for businesses. Polar Mobile, for example, operates a one-size-fits-all app development tool that lets businesses outline what they want in a few easy steps and builds an app in just a few days. Other shops, such as Xtreme Labs, build custom applications from scratch - the process may take longer, but the end product is unique.

The decision to build an app is often not straightforward. For example, a business owner must decide what content they want to include and how many smartphone or tablet platforms they want to be on. With some developers charging tens of thousands of dollars, those decisions often come with a hefty price tag.

With smartphones and tablets projected to overtake desktop computers as the Web-surfing devices of choice in the next few years, having a Web site optimized for mobile will prove increasingly vital to a firm's online presence.

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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