MIT Takes Two-Pronged Approach to Mobile App Dev

Tech-savvy, diverse constituents currently mandate adoption of device-specific and Web-based apps; Google's Android is likely on the institute's horizon.

One organization's story tells in microcosm the multifaceted tale of mobile application development.

For reasons that stem from its egalitarian academic culture, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has determined to support a number of different mobile devices for use by its students, faculty and staff.

"We cannot force people to use one platform," said Andrew Yu, mobile devices platform coordinator at MIT. "After all, this is MIT, and people are interested in innovative technologies."

This tall task has led MIT to adopt a two-track strategy of developing Web-based applications while keeping its options open with regard to future device-specific applications. Given MIT's engineering expertise, the solutions the institution is coming up with may have relevance to enterprises beyond academia that are wrestling with similar mobile application development questions.

MIT's Web-based system, now in beta test, will enable hosted mobile applications to recognize automatically and adapt to any of several different browsers and devices used by the 20,000 members of the MIT community.

"If we were to develop on one platform, that would exclude others. The natural compromise was to create Web-based applications that any of the devices' browsers can access. So we developed a Web application that can be accessed by any mobile device, including a normal cell phone," said Yu.

The system will serve up content in formats tailored to the Apple iPhone, Research in Motion BlackBerry, Windows Mobile- and Palm OS-based devices, and other cell phones equipped with an XHTML browser.

"The iPhone gets something very different from the BlackBerry or a Windows Mobile or Palm OS device," said Yu.

For example, he explained, an iPhone boasts a landscape mode that other devices do not have. MIT's new system will utilize the iPhone's built-in accelerometer that works with the device's built-in Safari Web browser. If a user is viewing, say, the MIT shuttle bus schedule in landscape mode, the schedule and the shuttle bus map will be displayed side-by-side. On other devices, a user would have to look at two separate screens to see both the schedule and the map.

But Web-based applications have limitations. For example, the MIT Web application listing events cannot be imported into a mobile device's calendaring application, as could be done with a device-specific application, Yu said.

This and other shortcomings in Web-based apps have spurred MIT to explore device-specific applications.

Yu said MIT is still evaluating which platforms to support. "The Apple iPhone will be included, as well as one or two other platforms," said Yu.

Those additional platforms could eventually supersede the Web-based system and likely will include Google's Android, since MIT is conducting a class with Google in Android development. "Android devices may not be showing up until the end of 2008, so we will have to evaluate the actual devices at that time," said Yu.

As MIT refines its mobile strategy, the university is trying out human resources and financial applications, such as those from SAP, that support mobile clients. Another initiative Yu hopes to implement is support of NFC, or Near Field Communication, on mobile devices. The technology, which is widespread in Asian countries, enables such devices as smart phones to be used in the manner of a debit card to make purchases.