Ecosystem Applications

Microsoft now has a [fairly] solid, credible ecosystem that incorporates desktop, tablet, phone, and even the “living room” with Xbox, all tied together via SkyDrive. My feeling is that the most successful software projects over the next few years will be those that offer a solution that touches as many of those end points as possible and not just by “accident”. In other words, it’s not good enough to say that I’ve created a web solution and therefore it touches all those points because each of the platforms has a web browser. That’s just lazy thinking. If it’s important that your target users be able to access the application from a tablet or phone then it should be important to you as a designer to think about the best possible experience for your user on each of those platforms. The fact that they could reach your web app through a browser on their phone or Xbox is just a happy accident; it gives them “better than nothing” access but doesn’t guarantee a great (or even a “good”) experience.

The other benefit of creating “whole ecosystem” applications is that it will make your customers more “sticky”; the more of the ecosystem that a customer relies on, the more ways in which they enjoy interacting with your application, the less likely they are to find a “better alternative” and that helps you to be more competitive and drive customer retention. That “enjoy interacting” statement isn’t accidental either; by focusing the design on the best experience possible for each platform you are more likely to create what Microsoft has coined a “delightful experience” and I think that’s important. There’s no reason that LOB applications need to be a stodgy recasting of a 1990s DOS system [like so many early Windows desktop apps were]. Embrace each platform, leverage each one’s unique properties, and you’ll create solutions that not only solve business problems but does so in a way that excites users and turns them into raving fans of your system!

Microsoft is uniquely positioned where ecosystems are concerned. Not very long ago the only “complete” ecosystem out there was Apple’s and while it covered things pretty well it lacked a solid living room component (Apple TV is just now starting to get some Apple engineering love so that could change by this time next year). Android is, for the most part, too fragmented to offer a unified ecosystem but technologies coming out of Samsung and products like Google’s Chromecast TV device are certainly worth watching. For now though it’s Microsoft that has the ecosystem strength and they cover everything that Apple does plus Xbox.

Of course the Microsoft ecosystem doesn’t just include the end-points; Microsoft has matured its Visual Studio suite to the point where developers can now live in this industry-leading environment regardless of which part of the ecosystem they’re targeting. Moreover, Microsoft makes it easy to integrate their cloud services offerings (Azure, Bing, Office 365) and it’s even possible now to share a significant amount of client business code across platforms as well (you’d still want to create a custom UX for each platform of course). In fact, using tools like Xamarin [which integrates with Visual Studio] you can even loop in other popular client environments (Android & iOS) to participate in your solution.

Ecosystem-based solution design presents an opportunity to create applications that go well beyond our traditional solution thinking and add tremendous value for your customers. This line of thinking doesn’t mean that you must create native applications for all platforms either (sorry if that was implied) but it does require you to think carefully about the best experience you can provide to each platform. If you feel that you can do this with a single mobile-first responsive website, go for it! What’s important though is that if your solution presents an ecosystem of interrelated clients with which your users can work you’ll be creating a unique experience that will set you far above your competition.

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