Toyota's mobile app mandate -- iPhone, iPad first

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from CIO.com. Visit CIO’s Macs in the Enterprise page.

Taking a page from its post-World War II Japanese roots, embattled car maker Toyota has turned to a business philosophy known as kaizen, or fanatical focus on continuous improvement. Last summer, kaizen showed up in the company’s mobile app effort.

Toyota wanted to build a mobile shopping app that would let consumers window shop among its 16 types of vehicles with more than 130 color options, find nearby dealers, and even take pictures of a vehicle identification number, or VIN, to get specific information about a car.

But what mobile device should Toyota design for? BlackBerry? That would not have been very kaizen. “If we had developed for RIM devices first and ported to the iPhone, you could have an argument that we were dumbing down our app,” says Michael K. Nelson, interactive communications manager at Toyota who handles Toyota.com. “RIM is not a very sophisticated platform at all.”

Toyota eventually delivered a mobile shopping app tuned for the iPhone, but then followed up with an Android app two weeks later and a BlackBerry app two weeks after that. Then Toyota added the VIN-photo feature to all three platforms. Today, Toyota is working on a tablet app that takes advantage of the iPad 2’s camera.

Companies looking to tap into the power of mobile apps often think they either have to develop a native app for a single platform or a vanilla app for multiple platforms. A native app leverages all of a platforms strengths yet risks the future if the platform falters. A vanilla app can run on and add features across platforms yet usually doesn’t offer a compelling user experience.

So how did Toyota get the best of both worlds?

The mobile app conundrum

In the early days of smartphones, there was only one clear choice for app developer: iPhones. But the emergence of Android devices and all of its OS flavors has cast a harsh light on the issue. A recent Nielsen survey found that Android is the most popular smartphone operating system in the United States, surpassing both iPhone and BlackBerry; mobile app developers can no longer ignore the Android platform.

The pendulum is swinging toward multi-platform apps and even browser-based Web services on tablets, given that tablets’ big browsers render Web sites well. (Toyota decided against pinning its tablet strategy on Web services, because its Website uses a lot of Flash, which isn’t supported on the iPad Safari browser.)

Among tablets, the iPad will no doubt increase its lead with iPad 2 shipping last week. According to results of a ChangeWave Research survey released last week, 82 percent of future tablet buyers say they’ll be purchasing an iPad. But iPad’s dominance is far from certain given the more than 80 Android tablets coming to market this year. Will they follow in the footsteps of Android smartphones?

Nelson thinks he’s found a way to sidestep the native platform vs. multiplatform dilemma: Build for Apple iOS using tools that make it easy to port to Android and BlackBerry. Toyota uses top advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi to design the front-end of the iPhone and iPad apps, and Kony Solutions for the back-end ties into Toyota’s database.

While Kony supports multiple platforms under the “write once, run anywhere” mantra, Bjorn Hildahl, director of product management at Kony, says his company employs more than 100 research-and-development employees dedicated to various platforms (including Android OS flavors) in order to deliver the native user experience.

“We make sure it feels and looks like, say, an iOS app,” Hildahl says. “We take all the native widgets, such as a day picker or scroll wheel, and expose it to the Kony APIs.”

If a new device comes out on a platform Kony supports, Kony promises to support the device in 30 days or less. For a new OS version, it’s 90 days or less. “You don’t have to worry about who’s going to win in the mobile platform arena,” Hildahl says.

Follow the Leader

By developing for iOS first, Nelson says, you get the best of both worlds. Why? “iPhone is really the standard bearer for smartphones,” Nelson says. “We design specifically for the iPhone. Android is the same functionality and somewhat of the same user interface.”

As long as the innovation leader continues to innovate, the thinking goes, it makes sense to follow the leader and port to the copycats. It also helps that the majority of potential Toyota customers use Apple mobile devices, Nelson says.

Such a strategy helps Toyota continually improve the mobile app, such as adding the VPN-photo feature. “The person, the vehicle, the product that you have today can always be better tomorrow,” Nelson says. “That’s what we always try to do.”

[Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com.]

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