Higher Education and the Mobile Platform Wars: Who's Winning?
Our annual surveys provide information on the landscape of ITIT and campus policies. In 2010 we added questions on going mobile. For the category "Mobile apps are an important part of campus plans," we got a very strong response. We see this as very much driven by student expectations - an expectation, if not an entitlement.
We find that 97 percent of all students in four-year colleges own cell phones and over half own smartphones. Look at the actual deployment levels: about 20 to 25 percent of universities have already launched mobile apps. And a large number currently have plans under review.
To date at least, the conversation has been dominated by LMS providers. We're seeing price competition. Some of these apps are free, others are fee-for-service. We can expect this to be a very volatile market in the coming year and beyond.
We're not at all sure who's winning (the mobile wars), but we certainly know who's losing - the IT staffs, the CTOs, the progressive thinkers trying to navigate this landscape.
Let's define the problem. The word mobile is a bit of a misnomer. Smartphones and tablets are just the start of a migration away from the PC and toward a world where computing is ubiquitous.
Compare an app strategy to utilizing the Web. Apps are cool and attractive. They're designed for touch interfaces. They're modal and mobile. They're extremely personal, dedicated just to me and my preferences. On the downside, it's frustratingly fragmented right now with so many platforms out there.
They're risky to invest in. You can bet the bank on iPhone or Android, and find out your students carry a higher preponderance of Blackberrys.
On the other side, there's utilizing the Web. It's universal and standardized. It's mature, device-independent and, for the most part, it's prebuilt - most of you already have Web portals. On the downside, the Web is slow and ugly and it's certainly not considered cool. It's not optimized for touch interface. It's definitely not modal, and it really doesn't give you the opportunity to take advantage of hardware functions on dedicated devices.
What's an institution to do? There are three basic options for dealing with this confusing environment.
You can distribute Web applications by creating mobile versions of existing portals. This gives you a device-agnostic solution that can be centrally deployed. It's easier and faster to get to market, since most of you already have portals and Web offerings. But it doesn't provide persistent presence on the user's device. When the Web connection disappears, so does the app.
You can go with a multi-platform strategy, and be prepared to adapt and adopt over time. The format of a mobile app is attractive. You can really guide a user down a path and make it easy to get tasks done. The downside: multi-platform support is a major resource and cost commitment. Betting on any technology is risky. The temptation to dabble with purpose-built, limited applications invites a user expectation that those platforms will be fully supported.
You can mandate platform support, which also means you mandate a set of devices to users. For those of us in the corporate space, this is where they hand you your Dell, like it or not. You don't have the headaches of supporting multiple platforms. It's extremely controlled and guarantees users a certain level of performance. The downside is it's costly, both from a hardware and IT support perspective, and it restricts user choice.
This really isn't just your decision. Vendors are in the war, too, and we need to respond.
At Campus Management, we're working on a one-two approach. One is creating mobile versions of our portal solutions, making those things available in very consumable, very attractive packages. We're also designing application kits. These will be near applications, or 90 percent there. That last 10 percent is for you to add your branding and other modifications so you can create a truly holistic application.