How mobile networks and app developers affect the user experience

December 20th, 2011
Published on
December 20th, 2011

Over the last couple of years, “app” development has become one of the most popular topics in the mobile world. Unfortunately, though, most application developers fail to realize how important their job has become: not just in terms of what they can accomplish with a modern phone but in terms of the overall role they play in shaping mobile experience as a whole. I won’t go so far to say that Application developers have lost their way, but I will say that application developers have yet to find it. In the end, app developers have a dramatic effect on everyone’s experience of the mobile platform as a whole.

Mobile networks have developed at a blistering rate. We have gone from 1st Generation networks (1G) to almost 4th Generation (4G) networks in a little over a decade. During this evolution, the data speeds have evolved from a mere 9.6 kbps (kilo bits per second) in 2G to over 100 Mbps (mega bits per second) in 4G. Techno mumbo jumbo aside, the implications of this increase are huge.

For example, if you were to access a photo that is 50 Kbyte (kilo byte) in size over a 9.6 kbps link, it would take approximately 42 seconds to download. But if you were to download this same photo over, say, a 100 Mbps LTE connection; it would take only 4 milliseconds. From 42 seconds to less than a second. Given that speed plays such a huge role on the user’s overall experience, the mobile platform has become a commercial goldmine overnight.

An app-driven market

All the while, mobile providers have been struggling to support networks that are now more data-centric than they are voice-centric. This might seem counter intuitive, but the logic is sound. Mobile providers never really knew what their data networks would be used for, but they figured that since mobile voice was such a big success, mobile data would also be. They were right, of course.

In the olden, 2G days, “apps” were far from popular—aside from a few games that came pre-loaded on mobile devices. Even then, only a true technophile knew how to (and then even dared to) load new apps on their phones. Today, things are different. Today, we have “smart” phones that can download applications with the touch of a button. But beneath the veneer of shiny icons and slick “app stores” provided by the major software companies, network providers are struggling to keep up.

Honestly, I’m not really sure what I would functionally do with—or why I would even need— a 100 Mbps (or more) connection for my mobile phone. Sure, it would be nice to send/receive an e-mail with a big attachment in next to no time. But is that something we need? or that we should expect? The reality is that even today we are used to a lot less than 100 Mbps. And that’s on our “desktop” computers.

The perils of “always on” devices

The biggest problem for the mobile operator today isn’t the threat of other mobile operators. Instead, mobile operators must concern themselves with 3rd Party Service Providers (including developers) that can offer all sorts of services and applications over their network. Although voice services still “pays the bills,” the costs due to data usage continue to escalate. Sheer economics dictates that mobile operators will not survive if they continue to offer “eat as much as you want” data plans.

This forms a catch-22 for the provider. On the one hand, users want more data and developers want more bandwidth to offer compelling products. On the other, operators need to know what their networks are being used for (and when) so that they can charge users appropriately.

Somewhere, there’s a compromise. The mobile operator gets rewarded for the advanced network it builds; the developers or 3rd party service providers generate profitable businesses based on innovative uses of their networks; and the consumers don’t pay and arm and a leg while they figure it out. Unfortunately, we have yet to see any sign of this compromise coming about.

To be sure: mobile networks will continue to evolve and become bigger, faster and more advanced. Application developers and 3rd party service providers will also continue to push the bill. But at what cost to the consumer?

In the meantime, the onus is on mobile app designers and developers. When will our applications actually test the limits of mobile technology? Instead of asking ourselves what’s the fastest or most light-weight solution, think big! How much more is there that we can control, how much more that we see, and how much more convenience that we can provide if we use mobile networks to their full extent? Only then will our perception of the mobile experience, and its relative cost, evolve.