Do We Need an App for That?


The General Services Administration (GSA) last week launched the Making Mobile Gov project to encourage agencies to offer more services for mobile devices such as phones and tablets.

The project notes that mobile services can improve transparency and service delivery, as well as enable new services. The project is aimed at coordinating mobile efforts across the government, avoiding the redundancies that the administration is hoping to cull from federal websites.

Mobile services can also reach new audiences. For instance, although African-Americans trail whites in home broadband adoption by 11 percentage points, African-Americans lead whites in mobile Internet use by 8 percentage points. As the project notes, "Mobile Gov creates opportunities to bridge the digital divide."

Agencies are already seeing some success with their mobile efforts. Examples include services to deliver health tips by text message and apps to check if a product has been recalled, find the nearest post office, and check the status of their income tax refund, as well as mobile-optimized websites from a variety of agencies.

While mobile offers important opportunities for agencies, it's important to have priorities. Agencies should concentrate on developing mobile-optimized websites before launching standalone mobile apps.

While mobile-optimized websites are accessible from any Internet-capable device, apps run only on a particular platform. Currently, the largest platform controls just more than a third of the smartphone market. If agencies want to reach more than 38 percent of smartphone users, they have to develop (and maintain) multiple apps, which comes at a cost. Even the three largest platforms combined account for only 86 percent of smartphone users.

Moreover, smartphones make up less than half of the mobile market (albeit growing rapidly). Non-smartphone users may use mobile Internet, but they can't use apps. The same fragmentation problem applies to tablets and e-readers. For that reason, in recent comments, we recommended "ensuring government websites are accessible in a variety of browsers, including mobile devices."

The Making Mobile Gov project notes, however, that mobile apps can make enhanced use of smartphones' capabilities, including GPS, cameras, and the like. Agencies should continue to develop mobile apps that utilize these features in seeking to best deliver information and services to the public. However, in many cases, these advanced features are superfluous. In those situations, agencies should prioritize mobile-optimized websites, keeping in mind the fragmentation and limitations of the app market.

Summing up, agencies should consider these rules of thumb:

  • Information and services available on an agency's website should be accessible via a mobile-optimized website, to the greatest extent possible, while complying with web standards and accessible design.
  • Where smartphones offer unique capabilities, agencies should experiment with developing mobile apps, for multiple platforms where possible.
  • If an agency develops a mobile app, it should make that functionality available via a website, to the greatest extent possible.

Photo by William Hook used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license

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