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Naughty Bits:

The Erotogeek's Guide for the Technologically Challenged Author
by Lisabet Sarai


App-y Together:
Straight Talk about Mobile Madness

 

Lisabet Sarai

Do you need an author app?

Do you have any idea what I'm talking about?

The ecology of computing has changed dramatically in the past two or three years. Touch-screen cell phones and tablets have taken the world by storm. Sales of notebook and desktop computers have stagnated as consumers opt for convenient, trendy mobile devices that promise constant access to information, entertainment and productivity tools.

If you're a technologically-challenged author, you may well wonder how you're going to deal with yet another mystifying and frustrating computing platform. Take heart. Almost everything I've discussed over the past ten months applies to mobile devices as well as to traditional personal computers. Although mobile applications look different than other kinds of software, they're based on the same principles. In this installment of Naughty Bits, I'll talk about what distinguishes mobile devices from classic PCs as well as what the two platforms have in common. Then I'll consider the implications of mobility for your writing and marketing.

Power in Your Palm

Mobile computing devices have actually been around for quite a while. Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) with touch screens and wireless connectivity became available in the early 1990s. These early “palmtops” didn't catch on, partly due to their high prices and limited functionality. The recent explosive growth of mobile devices has resulted from several converging factors:

  • New mobile data transmission protocols;
  • Widespread expansion of cellular phone networks;
  • Sharp drops in the price of computer processors and memory;
  • Fierce competition between device providers.

Mobile devices have many features in common with more familiar types of computers. Like PCs, mobile devices have a CPU (Central Processing Unit), dynamic memory, and persistent storage for files, as well as facilities for input (touch screen, microphone, accelerometer, etc.) and output (screen, speakers, etc.). Today's smart phones and tablets use gestures for interaction and thus offer an experience quite different  from typical personal computers. However, as important as this is to users, the difference is largely superficial. Under the hood, mobile applications look a lot like any other computer programs.

Like PCs, modern mobile devices use an operating system (e.g. Android, iOS or Windows Mobile) to control end-user software and manage resources such as memory and disk space. In many cases these operating systems are simply variants of a desktop OS. Android, for instance, is derived from Linux.

Smart phones and tablets derive much of their utility from the fact that they can connect to the Internet regardless of their location. However, most mobile applications use the same Internet protocols – especially HTTP – that are employed by more traditional software. Thus most of what you've learned from reading this column (starting with HTML 101) applies to mobile devices as well.

So why is everyone so excited about the so-called mobile revolution? What's so special about these gadgets? There are at least three critical features of mobile devices that distinguish them from traditional computers.

  • Mobile devices are always available and can be used under almost any circumstances. The other day I watched a woman in a diner interacting with her iPad with one hand while eating strips of bacon with the other. I cringed, imagining what bacon grease might do to a touch screen, but the scene drove the point home. People take their phones and tablets everywhere.
  • Mobile devices are fundamentally multimedia platforms. Every smart phone and tablet includes a camera, microphone, speaker, and a high quality color display. And every one of these devices can send and receive data over the Internet. Mobile devices are designed from the ground up for recording, displaying and exchanging video and audio content. While other computing platforms can handle multimedia, these capabilities are seamlessly integrated into mobile devices.
  • Most mobile devices are location-aware. Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers allow them to “know” where they are on the face of the earth. Software can take advantage of this location information. Applications running on the device can “geotag” content gathered by the device. Server-based software communicating with the device can send content that is customized based on the device's current location.  

The three features above make mobile devices an extremely attractive platform for advertising and marketing. Users (that is, customers) are more or less constantly accessible. Marketing material can be delivered using lively and engaging video and audio formats, and furthermore, can be tailored based on where the user is currently located. Furthermore, software communicating with mobile devices can potentially gather detailed data on the user's patterns of movement and daily routines, which can be exploited to target advertising even more precisely.
 
Because of these characteristics, creating a mobile app to promote your brand, win customers and build loyalty has become de rigueur. But what, exactly, is an app?

Anatomy of an App

“App” is short for “application”, which in turn is a fancy name for a computer program designed for end-users (as opposed to a program that is run by the operating system or that is intended mainly for technicians). On mobile devices, apps tend to be small programs that perform only a few functions. This is partly because the computational power of today's mobile devices is still quite limited compared to desktop or notebook computers.

Some apps provide the same essential capabilities available on desktop platforms: calendar, address book, messaging, memo pad, and so on. Games are another popular app category. The apps of most interest to marketers, however, involve access to and exchange of information over the Internet.

Most mobile devices ship with a web browser installed. This browser can be used to view web sites and interact with web applications like those we've considered in previous Naughty Bits installments. In many cases, however, browser-based interaction on a mobile device will be less than satisfactory. Web pages designed for desktop access are hard to read on the smaller screens provided by many mobile devices. Even the fastest mobile Internet is still considerably slower than a wired network, so web applications that transmit large amounts of data to the client will feel sluggish and unresponsive. The problem is compounded by the relatively low computational power of the processor chips used in mobile devices. The faster and more powerful a CPU, the more heat it will produce and the more electricity it will consume – both big problems for mobile computers.

Because of these characteristics of browser-based access, many organizations create specialized mobile apps for interacting with their web applications. These apps communicate via HTTP, just like a generic browser.  However, they display information in a simpler format that is more appropriate for mobile screens. They also may be designed to minimize the amount of data exchanged via the 'Net.

A generic browser is deliberately isolated from the system on which it is running, in order to protect against malware. For instance, most browsers are not allowed to read or write files except in certain specific directories, or to trigger the execution of other programs. These restrictions do not apply to mobile apps. Apps can create and use local databases, maintained in the mobile device's persistent storage, to hold information that would have to be transmitted from the server in a traditional browser-based configuration. Apps are also free to invoke other software residing on the mobile device.

Thus, apps provide the advantages of access to the World Wide Web, without some of the constraints of using a browser. The underlying communication model is still the same – the app sends an HTTP request and the web server sends a response. In some cases the web server may not even be aware that it is communicating with an app as opposed to a general-purpose browser.

There's one additional advantage provided by apps. An app can be designed not only to respond to requests from the mobile device (a “pull” model) but also to broadcast information to the device without a request (a “push” model). This kind of communication uses protocols other than HTTP and depends on the fact that each device has a unique identifier. The ability to send unsolicited information to devices has obvious benefit for advertisers but can be useful in other contexts as well (e.g. emergency notifications).

The big disadvantage of the app approach is the fact that someone has to create a new app for each web application. Furthermore, as server side capabilities change over time, it may be necessary to modify the app to handle differences in the server output. These issues do not arise with a generic browser.

Another problem stems from the fact that currently there are several popular mobile operating systems, most notably Apple's iOS and Google's Android. These two software environments are not compatible. Thus, in general it is necessary to create at least two different versions of every app, one for each platform.

Mobile Marketing for Authors

Who has apps these days? Magazines and newspapers create apps that provide access to articles and other content. Airlines create apps so that passengers can make reservations, view schedules, and track flight status. Restaurant chains have apps that let you locate the closest branch, view menus, order food and request delivery. Banks offer apps for reviewing accounts, making transfers and paying bills. Basically, anyone who has a web site might consider producing an app that offers a subset of that site's capabilities in a form appropriate to mobile devices. The “push” capabilities discussed in the previous section allow a business to notify app users about new products, special offers, or other events as they occur. 

Some businesses employ mobile-only promotions to encourage use of their apps. For instance, ordering a pizza through an app might automatically entitle you to a discount. For many people, though, the convenience of using their mobile devices provides sufficient motivation, assuming that the app provides functionality that is already important to the user.

So what about authors? Most of us have web sites and/or blogs. Does it make sense to create an author app? And what would such an app do?

Here are some ideas:

  • Allow readers to view your covers and read excerpts;
  • Allow readers to order your books;
  • Notify readers about new releases;
  • Feed your blog content to users' devices;
  • Allow readers to send and receive messages from you;
  • Allow readers to communicate with other readers and fans.
An app with “push” capabilities might do more:

  • Send promotional offers customized to readers' previous browsing or buying history;
  • Send real-time video of events like readings or conferences;
  • Suggest books based on the user's current location.

The possibilities are limited only on by your imagination – and of course by your budget. I'm assuming you're not going to write the app yourself, so you'll have to hire someone to do it for you. Then, of course, you'll need to keep the information provided by the app up-to-date, just as you need to continually update your web site and blog.

I believe there are companies that specialize in creating author apps. I know one very popular author who has such an app. She told me that it costs her a bit under $100 per month. If this sounds steep, remember that this price includes maintaining the core data on a server somewhere, as well as developing and distributing the mobile application itself.

Most of you are probably shaking your heads at this point, figuring you don't have the financial resources to join the mobile revolution. I sympathize. And how important is a mobile presence, anyway?

To try to get a handle on this question, I ran a contest. I asked readers to send me an email answering the following three questions:

  • Do you own and use a smart phone? 
  • What kind? iPhone, Android phone, or something else? 
  • If you have a smart phone, would you be interested in a free "author" app that let you read excerpts, get news, view covers and generally keep up with what an author is up to?

Each email counted as a contest entry.

I received twelve responses. Five respondents said they had smart phones. Seven did not. Even so, eight told me that they'd enjoy having such an app if it were available. That is, even some of the readers who didn't own smart phones liked the overall idea of an author app. One respondent told me she already had downloaded several such apps and waxed enthusiastic about the latest one she had acquired.

From this small and unscientific survey, I conclude that there may well be a demand right now for author apps. Of course, once a large number of authors do offer such apps, the utility of this approach for marketing will decline dramatically. I think there's a window of opportunity right now, for those of you who can afford to produce an app, but before too long, marketing will move on to the next big thing – whatever that turns out to be!

Don't despair. If you don't want to undertake the bother and expense of creating an app, you can still do something to capitalize on the mobile revolution. Review the design of your web site and blog with the objective of making them more mobile-friendly. Design for a page width no wider than 640 pixels. Reduce the number and size of images. Get rid of animations, videos and other content that requires high bandwidth. (Although mobile devices are optimized for multimedia, mobile browsers usually don't include the necessary plug-ins to handle this content.)

Then check out your site with your own smart phone – or borrow a friend's. If someone accesses your site from their mobile device, will they get your message? Or will they see garbage?

If you really love your fancy, image-laden site too much to change it, there's another simple option. Create a simplified version of the site targeted for mobile devices as a sub-area on your main site, and then provide a link on the home page. This is comparable to the old strategy (which most of you probably don't recall) of having a text-only version of a web site for slow browsers.

Conclusion

I don't own a smart phone. I have a small tablet that I use almost exclusively for reading ebooks; I don't tend to connect it to the Internet because I'm worried about being infected with malware. (Mobile security is a major problem that most users don't even think about.) I am not in any sense at the forefront of the mobile revolution.

Nevertheless, authors need to be aware of the trend toward mobility and consider how they can exploit it in their marketing. You may not have the money or inclination to build yourself an app, but take some time to think about how you can benefit from the fact that these days your readers carry computers around everywhere they go. Perhaps you'll come up with some new and creative notions for mobile marketing. If you do – let me know!

Lisabet Sarai
November 2012


Visit Lisabet at Lisabet Sarai's Fantasy Factory or her blog Beyond Romance
Read more of Lisabet's Naughty Bits in ERWA 2012 Archive

______
"Naughty Bits: The Erotogeek's Guide for the Technologically Challenged Author" © 2012 Lisabet Sarai. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written

About the Author:More than a decade ago LISABET SARAI experienced a serendipitous fusion of her love of writing and her fascination with sex. Since then she has published four single author short story collections and six erotic novels, including the BDSM classic Raw Silk. Dozens of her shorter works have been released as ebooks and in print anthologies. She has also edited several acclaimed anthologies and is currently responsible for the altruistic erotica series COMING TOGETHER PRESENTS.
Lisabet holds more degrees than anyone needs from prestigious universities who would no doubt be embarrassed by her chosen genre. She loves to travel and currently lives in Southeast Asia with her highly tolerant husband and two cosmopolitan felines. For more information on Lisabet and her writing visit Lisabet Sarai's Fantasy Factory or her blog Beyond Romance.



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