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Dear App Developers: Think Twice Before Going Mobile-Only

Following predictions by technology analysts traced to back 2008, the rate of global mobile Internet usage finally surpassed desktop Internet usage in 2016.  It’s clear the ways in which individuals interact with technology are changing, and with it, the fabric of contemporary life. Once considered the purview of hip twenty and thirty-somethings, it’s no longer unusual to see small children and people over the age of 65 deftly using various apps and software tools on smartphones and tablets.  For many in the younger set, they can’t imagine daily life without the constant presence of such devices.

This is all exciting news for software developers, many focusing their time solely on building apps and tools designed for phones, tablets and wearables.

Mobile development is a specialized field, requiring forms of expertise demanding practitioners become uniquely skilled in a wide and eclectic range of coding and design practices. Such niche skillsets come at the expense of having more broadly applicable knowledge; in that sense, devoting one’s development portfolio exclusively to the mobile environment is perfectly logical. It’s fun, too: mobile developers work in a fast-paced, perpetually changing environment, which easily provides more than enough stimulation for enterprising techies. The well-known excitement and competitiveness of the startup world makes it all the more appealing for those who want to work at the cutting edge of technology.

But is going mobile-only the best way? While they may not be so obvious, there are many drawbacks to this career trend. The hidden downsides of mobile-only development are worth reviewing. Here are some issues for consideration by anybody thinking about launching a mobile-only development career.

User retention. While the competitiveness of the global market is exciting, it also means getting and retaining customers is more difficult in the world of mobile-only apps. Such startups and developers must spend more time and money advertising their wares than those who sell to a wider market. Furthermore, simply getting users to install apps is only half the battle: while most desktop technology lives on a user’s computer for a long time, it’s all too easy for mobile users to hit the “uninstall” button. Since many apps work on a paid subscription basis, this leads to major losses for developers over time.

Syncing and integration. As new hardware and later versions of operating systems are introduced, integrating apps fluidly across platforms presents an ever-growing challenge to developers. It’s tempting to design products optimized for the latest OS or device, but more often than not, that means apps won’t work as well on earlier versions. And while ads from large tech companies make it appear as if all savvy users rush to grab the latest phones or upgrade to the newest systems, most people can’t afford the cost or the time to learn how to use the newest of everything. Early adopters represent a small share of the general mobile market. Frequently, mobile development means building tools faster than they can be used by customers.

Competition with bundled apps. All smartphones, tablets and wearables come with pre-installed software that, unlike anything purchased in an app store, can’t be deleted from the device. Since memory on a mobile device is so limited, users are selective about apps they choose to run. So competition comes not only in the form of apps with similar functions but all other optional software tools. Mobile-only developers must work harder to distinguish their products than those who build more widely useable applications.

A sustainable career in software provides the immediate gratification of innovation, and speaks to the real needs of end users and fellow technologists. As exciting as it is for software developers to consider a mobile-only career, those who are on this track should consider all of its pitfalls.

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