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The Mobile future’s bright, the future’s hybrid

 

This post was written by Adam Fox and first appeared on the LINE blog on 2nd August 2011.

Adam Fox, Senior Mobile Architect at LINE, outlines some of the recent technology developments that point to a bright future for mobile learning and communications.

One of the major barriers to the growth of m-learning, previously, has been the problem of developing for multiple devices. Even with the degree of rationalisation offered by the growth of Android, a cross-platform OS for smartphones, organisations wishing to develop mobile learning still faced a plethora of competing computer languages, operating systems and app stores. The result of this profusion, up to as little as a year ago, was a fairly stark choice between two alternative routes – develop native apps or make your mobile learning browser-based – each of which had its upsides and downsides. Browser-based apps operate better across different mobile platforms, for instance, but don’t make use of onboard functions like accelerometer, camera, audio, etc. Native apps do this job better, but have to be rebuilt from scratch for each different device and platform, multiplying development costs.

Now a third route has emerged – hybrid – together with new cross-platform development tools, all at once the future looks a whole lot brighter for m-learning.

Filling the gap

A major bugbear for developers addressing the problem of cross-platform development has been the babel of computer languages. iOS, the operating system of Apple’s hugely popular and influential iPhone and iPad devices, uses Objective-C. Meanwhile, Windows phones use .NetC, while Android and Blackberry each use very different flavours of Java.

A number of new development tools, some open source, allow developers to create native apps in the more common web programming languages of JavaScript and HTML5, and get back appstore-ready apps for Apple iOS, Google Android, Palm, Symbian, and BlackBerry without costly redevelopment.

The resulting app behaves like a native app, and feels like one as far as the user is concerned. Making calls to native APIs, it can access native features like camera, compass, geolocation, etc. (Caveat: native features that can be accessed vary from device to device). However, it has a browser inside it, so the app is updatable and can access remote data sources just like a browser-based app. The best of both worlds, it seems.

Perhaps the main point about these tools is that they all use HTML5, the next version of the web’s underlying language, potentially freeing developers of m-learning content from having to grapple with proprietary languages such as Objective-C, in which far fewer developers are expert.

Benefits for L&D

One of the implications for Learning & Development of the hybrid route is that it de-risks, to some extent, the decisions they have to make over which target learning device to use. This is currently a highly pressurised call, having strategic impacts, and requiring L&D staff to make predictions over Technology Futures. Simpler cross-platform publishing takes a lot of the heat out of that decision, and even adds an element of future-proofing to content development, since no choice is irrevocable where cross-platform publishing is easy and cheap. In addition, changes and updates can be made to content without having to redistribute the app, prolonging the life of learning programmes.

In organisations where a variety of mobile devices are used, it will allow more cross-platform provision of content without the need to develop separately for each different device and operating system: write once, run anywhere. In the bigger picture, the emergence of the hybrid route promises to break down barriers of cost and complexity, while adding greater reusability, all of which is very encouraging for m-learning.

Hybrid apps bring us that bit closer to the Holy Grail of L&D presently, which is to be able to develop learning content once, and publish it to all available mobile devices simply and quickly. We’re not there yet, by any means, but it has come a lot closer in the past year, and as more and more internet access moves from PC to mobile devices the ability to publish cross-platform to mobile will become increasingly critical in helping to realise that goal.

… But it’s not all good news (shock)!

All of that having been said, it should be emphasised that considerable challenges still exist in developing for multiple mobile platforms. Not the least of these difficulties is the rapid change and unpredictability in the mobile market. Up until recently, app development was largely focused on the Apple iOS devices, with Android very much a ‘roadmap’ item. Recently, however, Distimo released figures showing that Android is liable to overtake Apple for the number of apps in its app store by the end of the year – signalling that it will have to be taken more seriously.

Blackberry also presents problems by virtue of its very popularity. Corporate users appreciate Blackberry, making it the favoured candidate platform for many an L&D director, especially in the financial and professional services sectors, where Blackberry has very high penetration. However the relatively limited screen real estate and functionality available to developers, especially when compared to iPhone, are bound to limited options. It is also complex to develop for, as each device is different in terms of hardware. Nevertheless, Blackberry is making aggressive moves in the tablet market, and remains a critical platform.

No-one likes to make predictions about volatile markets like mobile. While it seems fairly safe to say that iOS, Android and Blackberry are the front-runners in the mobile market at the moment, and the most important platforms for the immediate future as far as m-learning is concerned, it could be a big mistake to write off Windows 7.

Distribution of mobile content

If development of learning content for mobile now promises to become easier, distribution is another area where things seem to be getting simpler.

LINE’s experience of working with Defence clients has brought us into contact with many of the key issues here involving security and control of sensitive content. Enterprise app stores are available, for those who don’t want their content available to the general public through iTunes, and license rules have changed, making it easier to use these for content distribution, although use still involves a degree of control by Apple that some will find unacceptable. Apps do not have to go via an app store, however; they can be delivered by email, and can also be controlled so that they only run on certain devices. Despite some media scares about data privacy on smart phones, security standards are generally good.

As m-learning becomes more mainstream, we are noticing a bigger requirement for learning content to integrate with delivery and administration systems. Where mobile versions of desktop programmes were often provided as optional add-ons and tended to be standalone, nowadays we are finding that they need to be integrated with LMS, VLE and LCMS far more frequently.

Conclusion

The rise of smart phones, and their widespread acceptance by end-users, has led to renewed enthusiasm for m-learning recently, which in previous years has tended to be stalled by the development issues we have mentioned above. The runaway success of the iPad, with its better screen size, has sparked the imagination of many in L&D, and LINE’s work in building Learning Architectures for clients has shown how both types of devices can find a place within learning programmes, each doing the job it is best at.

Although the tendency for technology to throw up rapid waves of change – each of which threatens to bring with it widespread obsolescence of content in abandoned formats – shows no sign of slowing in pace, we are finding that the repurposing we generally have to do takes less time. Converting our Cultural Awareness programme from smart phone to tablet, for instance, was a far smaller project than the conversion from desktop to mobile had been.

LINE continues to find ways of bringing greater technical efficiency to the process of content production, and also design efficiency. In this respect the technology tools are definitely improving, and we will soon have some announcements about our own technology developments in the near future that will make the future of m-learning look even brighter.