As product manager for a public web site at PBS, I’m following the news about the development of healthcare.gov closely. From my perspective this looks like an extreme product management challenge, as illustrated in an in-depth report in the Washington Post.
Like many product managers, I’ve certainly dealt with difficult customers and stakeholders, and had to manage unclear requirements and unreasonable expectations. Those experiences, however, look like child’s play compared to the toxic mix of politics and partisanship that were the main concerns of the customers of the healthcare site. It’s easy to say that more or better developers (or product managers) could have avoided the serious start-up problems of the site, but the Post report shows that the real problems came from the people creating the requirements, not the team implementing them.
As John Dickerson writes in his summary of the Post report in Slate:
Apple and Google would never have allowed the problems that Cutler outlines in his memo to fester. But then again, Apple and Google would not have had to deal with an environment where their rivals were plotting to remove all the equipment from their product laboratories every night.
In other words, if the customers and their business are crazy, there’s only so much that the technical team can do.
I love stories like this one, from the latest Technology Review.
Suneet Singh Tuli, the man behind the ultracheap Aakash 2 tablet, says the West doesn’t understand mobile business in the developing world.
Nobody focuses on the problem of creating apps for somebody whose monthly income is $200. Those people are not part of the computer age or the Internet age; most of them are not literate. So we run app competitions in India to try to get people thinking from that perspective. The winner of our last competition was a group of students who designed a commerce app for “fruit walas,” the guys who run around with carts selling fruits and vegetables. These students created a graphically intuitive way of running a small vegetable business.
There are something like five million fruit walas in India, so if you had an app for them, there could be a lot of money to be made.
This is a refreshing alternative to so much of what we see in the tech world, so accurately described by George Packer in his recent New Yorker article about the life and times of Silicon Valley:
It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.
Every week, there are new articles in the tech press describing how another company is turning to the web to deliver its content and brand across multiple platforms. The latest one I read, from the Guardian, describes how Bloomberg is devoting equal resources to web and native apps, looking to their mobile web site to deliver “content across every device.” The folks at CCS heard this same story from many developers at this year’s Mobile World Congress.
The technical advantages of web on mobile are clear, and the tools to deliver the tech keep getting better, as the latest news from Adobe and Sencha demonstrate. For app developers and even enterprises, there’s still a gap in the web application ecosystem when it comes to distribution, discovery, and payment. If you’re a consumer with a smart (or not-so-smart) phone, it’s still easier to download an app from an app store than to find and install a pure web application. It’s these “commercial” parts of the value chain that turn a development technology into an application ecosystem.
That’s why the recent announcements from Mozilla and Facebook at MWC, and AT&T earlier at CES, are exciting. Here is evidence that major mobile players are putting at least some effort into building out the business side of web on mobile, and starting to roll out solutions for app distribution (AT&T) and in-app payment (Facebook) for web apps.
I don’t think any of these will provide much competition for the App Store or Android Market (oops, I mean Google Play), but it’s a start. I’d like to hear what you think; are web apps really growing up into a “real” ecosystem? Does the web on mobile really need these app-like distribution and payment channels in order to succeed (whatever that means)?
Photo by mozillaeu from flickr
I was experimenting with augmented reality using the Qualcomm AR SDK and a holiday theme
I had to comment after reading yet another article about the “competition” between web and apps on mobile platforms, this time on GigaOM. As I wrote there (and in an earlier post here), this doesn’t need to be a battle. Different use cases and requirements require different technologies on different platforms; this isn’t likely to change for a while.
There is, however, one clear advantage to the web or web app approach; when your content resides on the server, you don’t need to write and distribute updated versions of your apps, and your customers don’t need to install those updates. This makes life easier for you and your customers.
Another benefit of the web approach is the confidence that all of your customers always see the most updated version of your stuff.
Let the debate continue…
If you’ve been following the mobile software space, you will know that there has been more than enough material written about the “battle” between web & native for mobile apps and services. The issue has now reached the Federal government, in the form of a webinar I attended earlier today, organized by the GSA mobile.gov team. They set up a debate on the subject, with two presenters, from the departments of Homeland Security (pro-web) and Labor (pro-native), taking deliberately extreme positions on the advantages of one approach over the other.
I don’t understand why this subject needs to be presented as an either-or battle, but if that’s what it takes to get technical and non-technical people to realize the benefits of mobile engagement and explore the options, then it’s not such a bad thing. Any of these debates, like this one, goes through the advantages and disadvantages before reaching the inevitable conclusion “it depends”.
So I see this debate, then, as a fun way to reinforce the importance of mobile as a critical channel for citizens to access government services and information. After the “battle” was over, both presenters described their approaches to developing mobile solutions, stressing the need to understand users and their needs before diving into specific technology choices.
I admit that I have one small nit to pick with this debate, and with much of the other discussion of mobile apps & web. Both presenters talked about the “mobile web” as opposed to just “the web”. With the wide range of devices in the market, I think it’s increasingly clear that there is no mobile web. Follow that link (or this one) to see why, in a more direct and complete way than I can write here.