A wide range of new client form factors, plus changes to the way people will use mobile applications, will increase developers’ need to build flexibility into their applications, according to “The Future Of Mobile Application Development,” a Forrester report that was released last week.

The report, written by analysts Jeffrey Hammond and Julie Ask, explains how modern mobile applications will evolve over the next few years and what development teams should prepare for now. If you’re a developer looking to build modern applications that will deliver contextual customer experiences, there are UI changes coming that you will need to understand, according to the report.

“When developers design user interfaces today—whether it’s for a laptop or for a mobile device—we think that that application is totally what the user’s going to be focused on,” said Hammond, principal application development and delivery analyst at Forrester. “So we try to design the applications to catch the user’s eye, to involve them, to totally engross them. But think about what’s going to happen when they have to be able to see the road or make sure that they don’t trip and fall while they’re getting cues from these applications.”

Hammond said the way developers design apps is going to become much more of a peripheral interaction than the main focus of interaction. “That’s going to be a bigger shift for developers than we think because we’re used to having the exclusive attention of the user,” he said. “Soon, that’s not necessarily going to be the case.”

UIs are going to change focus from touch to voice, according to the report. “When you strap that device onto your arm (before a run, for example), you’re not going to look at it anymore until you’re done with your run. Voice takes over,” Hammond said. “Also, when you’ve got applications that are in the car, the natural mode also shifts to voice. But you don’t only want to have voice because, if you’ve got an application and you’re in a crowded restaurant, you’re going to want to shift back to touch. So developers have got to be able to essentially support multiple modes of input.”

Hammond said that developers need to even understand which mode is going to be the preferred mode. He said there’s no reason for developers to not take advantage of the microphone that detects ambient sound and say, “Oh, well, with the decibels here, I can’t really understand voice input so I’m going to automatically shift to text input or touch input instead.”

Wearables and connectables are definitely coming in the near future, the report said. “I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the prototypes that have been shown around on batteries that are flexible,” Hammond said. “So you can conceivably have a battery woven into your jacket and be charging your cell phone all day long with a 10-ounce, flexible battery that’s in the back panel of your jacket. Or imagine shoes that can generate power while you’re walking around. If you’ve got that battery panel hooked up to little power generators in your shoes and you go for a 40-minute run, you’ve just generated enough power to power your cell phone for the rest of the day.”

There’s also no reason we can’t see these mobile devices change pretty radically in form factor, Hammond said. “Why do you have to have the 4-inch device up by the side of your face?” he asked. “If you have a pair of glasses on, who’s to say you can’t have a brick sitting in your briefcase or your attaché that’s doing most of the processing and the glasses are essentially the local dumb terminal, if you will. It’s kind of like the fifth generation down from a 3270 terminal.” Hammond said that by 2014, those types of glasses will definitely be available.

Hammond wrote a blog post to go with the report, stating that the best way for developers to develop mobile apps is, well, not to develop mobile apps. He was just making the point, he said, that these apps are going to get very large and very complex.

“It’s the new way of building,” he said. “It’s almost like how we really don’t talk about client/server apps anymore or Web applications; it’s just how we build apps now. We just assume that that’s the architecture. I think, if you were to go five years in the future and look back at today, at how people are building apps now, they’re going to be building applications this same way.”
Three takeaways for developers
Flexibility in architecture is key: There’s still an awful lot of change over the horizon, according to Hammond. “We’re not at the end state, where all developers have to do is worry about writing Android apps or iOS apps,” he said. “That may keep you for the next year and even the next two years, but there are more devices coming and we’re probably going to have more than just two operating systems that we’ll have to care about on the client. So, flexibility in architecture is key, as is understanding that these things are connected systems.”

When you have the option of trading flexibility for speed, said Hammond, you need to think very carefully about that. “Folks need to think very carefully about where it makes sense to do platform-specific optimizations and where maybe Web technology can help them save a little bit of money so that they can hit the maximum number of platforms,” he said.

Functionality will blend into the platform itself: “I think one of the things that developers should understand is that the nature of the app itself is changing,” said Hammond. “We’re starting to see the functionality blend into the platform itself. So, whether it’s something like the Apple Passbook where, if you’re a brand, your loyalty cards now show up in the Apple Passbook, or whether it’s Google Now where, if Google makes the APIs available to use their voice recognition or if Siri does the same sort of thing, now you’re just tapping into the device.”

A trend that Hammond sees continuing is the one in which mobile apps become a little bit less single and modular, and instead integrate more tightly with the platforms themselves. “So this idea that I’m creating my own standalone app and it’s one of 500,000 in the AppStore and it’s impossible for people to find, gets replaced,” he said. “It gets replaced by, what sort of context, what sort of services am I tapping into, and how do I participate in that customer experience?”

It will be about more than voice and touch: “I think the biggest thing that developers will need to keep in mind is that mobile development won’t be just about what the eyes see or what the fingers touch. It will also be about what the voice says, what the ears hear and how they all work together,” Hammond said.

Mobile app development changes a-coming
-Apps will augment voice input and prioritize it over touch.
-UIs will need to adapt to heads-up interfaces.
-Touch input devices will require adaptive UIs to deal with multiple device sizes.
-Standalone mobile apps will evolve into pluggable mobile services.
-Wearables and connectables will herald a fast-changing local network of customer context.
-Better Web support will advance the economics of the hybrid application model.