Will Retail Ever `Get' Mobile Computing?

This column was written by Evan Schuman, the editor of StorefrontBacktalk, a site that tracks retail technology, e-commerce and security issues. Retail Realities appears every Friday. Evan can be reached at e-mail and on Twitter.

Should mobile be considered its own retail channel or should it just be a sub-channel, something to act as a temporary placeholder for a desktop until the customer can get to a real computer? (Hint: The answer is the same as it was in school. If one answer is going to require a lot more work, that's the one you're supposed to choose.)

We're asking the question because a lot of major retailers today seem to be designing their Web apps based on the assumption that consumers are also using their desktops and that their mobile devices are simply a very temporary point of convenience. But is that how many consumers view mobile devices? What if we zero in on Gen-Y members, who seem to have an effortless natural affinity for these radiation-emitting thumb-typing mini-boxes?

Last week's story about Pizza Hut's impressively well-designed iPhone app is a good example. That app is gorgeous, and it works effortlessly. Pizza Hut people spent a lot of time trying to craft an experience that would be both fun and functional.

And yet, the app was clearly designed with the assumption that consumers would not only use it with their desktop system but work with the desktop version first. This approach was so assumed that no instructions are offered with the mobile app; rather, the designers believed that users would access the Web site's instructions from their desktops.

When we tested the Pizza Hut app's PCI-compliant credit card function, it refused to accept a credit card on the phone, insisting instead that we pay cash. Turns out the system simply assumed that we had set up a credit card on a desktop. When we deliberately entered a typo in a street address, there again, the app was helpless to fix it. Although the mobile app said nothing, we later learned that only the Web site can fix a typo from the mobile app. (We ran into another issue because we never had created an account on the desktop, nor had the app asked us to. When we tried to set up one on the site, it created more problems. Seems that the app had already created an account for us on the site, something that the app failed to mention.)

But the point of that anecdote is twofold. The stunning level of detail in the Pizza Hut iPhone app is a work of art that required a lot of attention. That suggests the designers' assumptions weren't the result of shortcuts; rather, it was a calculated decision for the iPhone app to stand on the shoulders of the desktop app, at least in the beginning.

The second point is that Pizza Hut has rightly stressed that mobile apps should not be mere windows into the Web site; they should be standalone. That sentiment needs to be applauded. But the app turns over crucial functionality-such as entering payment card data and fixing typos-to the desktop.

That said, we have to appreciate that we're still in the world of first-generation mobile apps. And we need to give these apps a few crutches; after all, it's hardly a crime that they have to leverage desktops that, candidly, are overwhelmingly going to still be in the picture. It's still important to note, though, because if apps today are being designed as supplemental, it's going to get exponentially more difficult to make adjustments down the road.

Consider the origins of the mobile phone. When it was launched, it was programmed and billed on the premise that it was a supplement to the analog hard-wired POTS connection of its day. It was a device to be used on the train, in the car, while waiting for a bus or sitting in a client's lobby. The idea that people would use a mobile phone at home instead of the analog connection was never seriously considered.

And yet, of course, that ultimately happened. The fact that the initial units were designed to be supplemental phones limited their use for years. Today's mobile smartphones have the horsepower, RAM, battery life and screen size to function truly standalone. As we start to create the second generation of retail apps, take a hard look at the latest iPhones, Blackberries and even Google's Nexus One. Don't you think it's time they flew solo?

By Evan Schuman
Special to CBSNews.com

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