Mobile Computing at Mines
David Frossard
1 August 2011
Campus Computing, Communications, and Information Technologies (CCIT) is exploring ways to present
relevant Mines information via a mobile interface, particularly for smart-phone users. Other entities on campus,
notably Public Relations and Admissions, are also participating in this process. This document addresses a
number of questions of relevance to this project, using statistics derived from Google Analytics for the period 1
Jan 2010 to 30 June 2011 (we have very little data before 1 Jan 2010). See the related document “Mobile
Statistics” for specific data on these trends.
1. Is there a need for a Mines mobile website?
Although a large number of universities have developed web sites or applications specifical y for mobile devices
like smart phones and tablets, is there evidence that dedicated mobile access is a high priority of the Mines
community? Maybe this is al just a fad?
Mines currently has no web resources specifical y tailored for mobile users. Smart phone users in particular must
navigate the ful Mines websites – www.mines.edu and inside.mines.edu – on very smal screens. This is not a
particularly convenient or comfortable way to access our sites. Thus, it is difficult to gauge the extent of interest
in a mobile website.
Nevertheless, visits to Mines web pages via mobile devices have almost tripled in the past 18 months, increasing
from 1.3 percent of al site visits in the first half of 2010 to 3.5 percent in the first half of 2011. For the marketing
and admissions site www.mines.edu, the numbers are higher: 1.7 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. For the
informational site inside.mines.edu, the figures are 1.0 percent and 2.8 percent. This is by far the fastest-growing
method for accessing Mines web resources in general. Although that rate of increase comes from a very low
base and is unlikely to be sustained, it is important to ask ourselves: What will the numbers look like in a few
years? Wil current trends continue? And if, say, 20 percent of users one day wish to access Mines data through
a hand-held interface, wil they have a way to do so conveniently?
Whether or not smart-phone owners real y wish to access Mines resources via mobile device, it is clear that
there are more and more people who at least have the ability to do so. Smart phones are now the fastest-
growing category of cel phones sold worldwide. Sales of relatively expensive smart phones have surpassed
sales of cheap, “dumb” cel phones in the US for the first time this year. While tablets are seen by many as luxury
items (particularly by non-US users), smart phones have become a “necessity” for teenagers with a certain
amount of disposable income – for instance, many prospective Mines students. We expect that smart phones
wil become ubiquitous over time.
Certainly, the trend for smart-phone ownership is only up. If we believe that www.mines.edu appeals mostly to
prospective students, and that inside.mines.edu is used mostly by people already on campus, it would seem
from our Google Analytics data that: (a) Younger individuals not yet on campus are seeking mobile access to
Mines resources at greater rates than those already on campus; (b) those already on campus are relatively less
interested in accessing Mines pages through mobile devices. Perhaps the former are optimistical y exploring for
mobile-specific resources and the latter have discovered the difficulties of doing so? Or perhaps younger people
are simply adopting smart phones in greater numbers than their slightly older peers?
In any case, there is undoubtedly now some interest in accessing Mines information through mobile devices and
that interest is increasing quite dramatical y in percent terms. At the very least, it is probably wise to plan for a
possible explosion in the use of mobile devices to access Mines web pages.
2. What devices are being used now to access Mines web pages?
Depending on the device used to access Mines web pages, different interfaces can and should be made
available. Obviously, tablet computers can access the ful Mines web space, as is. But smart phones and similar
devices (e.g., the iPod Touch) have much smal er screens and benefit from simplified interfaces. So, what is the
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trend among the mobile devices used to access Mines resources?
In terms of which particular mobile hardware is being used, the Apple iPhone, iPad, and iPod taken together
make up more than 2/3 of al mobile devices used to access Mines pages during the study period. Access by
Android smart phones, from a number of manufacturers, has approximately doubled in that period, to around 29
percent.
Taking a weak third place is BlackBerry, whose share of Mines mobile web access was halved during the study
period and now stands at about 3 percent overal . Other mobile devices running Microsoft Windows Phone 7,
Symbian, and other phone operating systems, retain a negligible presence on Mines web servers. Nokia has
abandoned the Symbian platform in favor of Windows Phone 7, so those numbers wil vary somewhat in
upcoming months and years. But the larger trend is unlikely to change anytime soon. As Information Week
reported this week, purchases of smart phones running Windows Phone 7 dropped 38 percent in the past three
months alone, making the Nokia and Microsoft phone strategies seem precarious at best.1
In summary, making sure that mobile content is available to users of smal -form-factor Apple iOS and Google
Android devices is key. While Mines mobile web resources wil be available to al smart-phone users, it would
seem that, given our finite resources, little extra effort should be expended to ensure such access.
3. How about tablets? What does increased use of tablet computers imply for our mobile plans?
Tablet access to Mines web pages has increased from about 5 percent of al mobile access a year ago to
approximately 22 percent today. Tablets, it appears, are here to stay. In particular, the iPad has increased its
penetration markedly in the past 18 months. Only in the last six months do we begin to see Android tablets
accessing Mines pages – about 2 percent of mobile accesses of inside.mines.edu in the first half of 2011. That
wil undoubtedly increase.
However, given the “luxury” status of tablets relative to phones, and the ubiquity and superior portability of smart
phones, we must assume that smart phones wil remain the main method to access Mines pages via mobile
device. Thus, a smal -farm-factor mobile interface is necessary to satisfy the needs of smart-phone users. Tablet
users may be satisfied to continue using our ful -featured web interfaces, but would be able to access a
simplified interface as wel .
4. What is our current mobility strategy?
In general, web content is delivered to smart phones in one of two
ways: Via special y-tailored simplified web pages, or via a
downloadable application.
Web pages designed for mobile devices often use “mobile cascading
style sheets” (mCSS) to take a current web page and remove
extraneous formatting and graphics for presentation on a handheld
device. Special y crafted mobile web pages may be used to further
simplify – and speed up – the mobile interface. General y, such
simplified websites (e.g., at right) concentrate on providing
information that is both of particular interest to mobile users and that
may be presented advantageously in mobile format. Breaking news
stories, images, video, maps, and bus schedules are often presented
this way. Dedicated web pages require the part-time services of a
webmaster and web programmer and so have some cost.
1 Information Week, 5 August 2011, “Windows Phones Down 38% Since '7' Launch”:
http://mobile.informationweek.com/80256/show/49def0b9cc2f53e41e16826e9c4eae14/
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Special-purpose mobile applications are also commonly deployed. Users of iPhones or Android phones have
“app stores” from which they can download applications for free or at nominal cost. Such applications can often
be more complex, powerful, and fast than purely web-based interfaces. However, programming and updating
such applications can take the ful -time attention of one or more programmers. Applications (e.g., below right)
are a relatively powerful, but expensive, way to deliver mobile content.
CCIT currently does not have sufficient FTEs to pursue either method
of mobile-content delivery in-house. However, we are currently
working with a third party to develop (1) a simplified mobile web
interface to deliver content to smart phone web browsers, and (2) an
iPhone application for instal ation by iOS users. An Android application
may also be on the horizon, but no further operating systems are
likely to be supported directly with dedicated applications. This project
is in an early stage of development. There is no cost to Mines for
initial development of this web resources or for use of basic features.
However, a budget for ongoing maintenance and the programming of
higher-level mobile-web features may be requested in the future.
This project is at a very preliminary stage. But if al goes wel ,
implementing a mobile web presence this way wil be relatively quick
(completion in 4th quarter 2011). The presence of a mobile-specific
interface wil then al ow us to gauge the interest of the Mines
community mobile computing. New mobile features wil be developed
based on our experience with the initial project.
5. What features are likely to be offered in a Mines mobile-
friendly interface?
Mobile interfaces, with few exceptions, do not provide access to al aspects of a university's larger web space.
However, mobile interfaces excel when delivering certain kinds of information – information that “fits” the mobile
form factor, and information that is particularly useful when one is not in front of a standard computer (i.e., when
one is mobile). What kinds of information do we have in mind?
Mobile interfaces typical y piggyback off larger websites and take content from them in the form of “feeds.” So,
for instance, the News and Events listings at www.mines.edu can be fed to a mobile interface quite easily as an
RSS or iCal feed, as can the sports feed from Athletics. Using different protocols, photos (stored on Flickr, for
instance), or videos (via YouTube), or campus maps (from Google Maps) can be brought into a mobile interface
relatively easily. We expect to see these features, and others, in the first version of the Mines mobile website and
iOS application.
6. What features could be offered in the future?
Anything that is offered via a ful -sized interface may, in theory, be offered through a smal -form-factor interface.
Blackboard and Trailhead, to name two resources, could be made available to mobile users. The Mines Help
Center Helpdesk (Footprints) and Banner could be made accessible via mobile device. Students could be
al owed to access grades and register for classes. With connections to campus Lightweight Directory Access
Protocol (LDAP) servers, campus directory information might be made available. The Arthur Lakes Library
already has a catalog online in mobile interface – http://catalyst.coal iance.org/vwebv/searchBasic?sk=mobile –
and we may be able to link directly to that resource.
That said, there are many financial, technical, and security questions to be resolved when accessing these
particular resources. Custom programming would be needed to implement these features – at fairly substantial
cost. As we move forward with our Mines mobile experiment and get more feedback from users, we wil explore
the possibility of adding the most-requested and most-useful mobile features. In the meantime, a basic mobile
web presence wil provide valuable data for planning this long-term and ongoing project.
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