Institutional Apps With Limited Resources - What Are Your Options

  • Posted by Jim Nilson
  • March 21, 2012 1:02 PM PDT

In higher education, we are constantly battling for state dollars. Budget cuts loom, and ultimately resources are scarce - especially for new initiatives and technologies. So what happens when your audience wants more than you are able to provide? Do we stop producing? Sometimes. Should we? Well it depends on what is important to your institution and the mission they are supporting. 


I've seen cases where an organization tries to do too much. Resource strain hurts other areas, and can often strain resources from areas outside of your own control. It is important to know what you are capable of doing, and then doing a good job with it. 


Mobile World


It is safe to assume, that we live in a mobile world. Within this mobile world, I am okay with leaving off the term smartphone. I know there are still some people without data-friendly/interactive/smart/<insert your own buzzword here> phones. This article is not for them, nor should it be. If you don't "get it" by now, I'm going to assume you might never understand "it", and I'm fine with that. Know your audience. I do. Do you?


Is your primary audience mobile driven? Are they mobile savvy? Are they mobile hungry? Yes. No. Maybe. All of the above. None of the above. That pretty much covers it right there. At my institution, less than 5% of our website traffic (as of March 2012) comes from mobile devices (this includes tablets). That stat continues to grow, but not necessarily at the rate that you would expect it. Desktop and laptop computers are still popular, so we cannot discount that. What we can do is try and segment out pockets of interest, analyze that data, and build/support from there. 


For example, our Graduate Programs get closer to 10% mobile traffic. Big difference. They obviously have less traffic, but the traffic they have tends to be from working professionals on-the-go. On-the-go traffic usually comes from on-the-go devices. Mobile.


Mobile Web vs. Mobile App


We have a need for mobile, but what does that mean? It is confusing to some when we talk about mobile web-this, mobile web-that, app-this, and app-that. Just to be clear, when I talk about the mobile web, I am talking about the website that comes up in your mobile device's web browser when you visit your website's URL. When I talk about mobile apps, I am talking about applications that are downloaded through your phone's store/marketplace and run locally on your phone (although most still have a dynamic web tie-in). Both support our mobile world, but both are completely different from one another.


Fortunately, our Information Technology (IT) area has dedicated resources for development and support of our mobile iPhone app. While most companies (Apple, Google, RIM, Microsoft, etc.) have their own app platform, I'm really only interested in two: iOS (Apple) and Android (Google). Your audience might have different needs. 


It is important to know your audience. 


Within our institution, we have resources to support the iOS platform. iOS is our most used mobile platform, so it makes sense for us to build and support for it. 


My area is in Marketing and Communications (M+C). We initially worked with our IT area on the front end of the development, helping with content and some design elements (university branding, logos, etc.). IT handled some of the design, and all of the development. This can be a very time consuming process. Building an iPhone app using Objective C (its native language) can have a high learning curve. 


Most of your IT programmers tend to be web programmers and scripters with strong Javascript, PHP or .NET skills. It's not that they are unable to build Objective C native apps, it is just a different animal in doing so. 


We (M+C) are working on our mobile web strategy, making our mobile web presence mobile friendly within mobile web browsers. While we are not having to learn an entire programming language to support this (HTML, CSS, and a little Javascript is all we need to know), it does take a lot of planning before we are able to implement.


Mobile App Development Options


Back to mobile apps, assuming there is a demand for a mobile app from your institution, or even company. How do you develop a mobile app(s) when funding might not be available to fully support this initiative? 


You could outsource it. That might work. 


Too often, though, I've seen outsourced projects become a money pit when it comes to long-term support and future updates.


You could pull resources together, and train your existing IT web programmers with the native language of the app's platform. This is what our IT area did, and it was successful for us. But what if that is not option? What if there is not enough time to get your strong Javascript web programmer up to par with being a native app developer?


The first time I held an iPhone, I had a desire to build iPhone apps (outside of my everyday role at the university) as a hobby. My bachelor's degree was in computer science; however, I've always been more web focused in my programming. I considered myself closer to a true web designer, who happened to have a touch of technical abilities. 


I dove deep into learning Objective C. In college, we learned C, C++, and Java. So I thought nothing of Objective C. My programming arrogance got the best of me. Building iPhone apps was going to take much more from me in personal resources than I was able to offer to this hobby. 


I nearly gave up, until I discovered a way to build iPhone apps using nothing more than HTML, CSS and Javascript. That was stuff that I knew inside out. Towards the end of my college career (late 90s), I worked at a web design company. If you don't know HTML, CSS, and Javascript you shouldn't be doing anything in the web development-related world.


Appcelerator's Titanium


The platform I discovered that allowed me to build iPhone apps is Appcelerator's Titanium. With minimal effort, I was able to get in and build a simple app in far less time than what it took me using Objective C. Granted, it was a primitive, simple app but it offered me hope that my ideas could be implemented into a more advanced app.


Titanium actually publishes your code into the appropriate platform's native language for you. So your HTML, CSS and Javascript end up being published as a native iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch, or (get this) Android app. We are focused on the iPhone side at this time, but the option to write the code once and publish to multiple platforms is very enticing, and resource friendly.


The major obstacle that I faced was the lack of good documentation with Titanium. It seemed that some sections had a decent amount of documented methods, and example snippets, while other areas completely left off mention of all of the available methods and examples on how to use those methods. Titanium offers reasonable support, but for a price. At that time, I was not willing, nor able to pay for a hobby. 


Fast forward, I've since built out a nice start up business with a group of other web marketers, building celebrity iPhone apps for pro wrestlers, MMA fighters, comedians, TV celebs and musicians. 


So how did I do it? I spent many sleepless nights, giving up my personal time working on and figuring out how to build the apps. This is probably not a solution for your institution or company, turning a web programmer loose with no resources to help them learn how to build apps using Javascript, HTML and CSS. 


A Book To Help


I recently came across a book that I wished was written when I first started this journey. It would have shaved months off of my discovery phase, maybe even a year. The book, written by Boydlee Pollentine, Appcelerator Titanium Smartphone App Development Cookbook, is an absolute must for those wanting to learn how to code apps using Titanium, and even those already developing with Titanium looking to strengthen their skills and increase their productivity.


Being in the computer science and web world, I've grown to hate/love programming cookbooks. They are good resources to use to look up coding snippets; however, they are often brutal to read from cover to end. While I do not consider myself to be a good writer (see above), I really find it difficult to read books written by hardcore IT people. They read like IT books probably should read; however, that style is not for me. 


Fortunately, Boydlee's book is not one of these books. I was amazed at how easy to read the book was. The author was able to answer questions that I had about Titanium in minutes. These were questions that I spent months researching with little to no luck. 


The book opened up pointing out how most books start by explaining the fundamental principles of the language, and focus on the architecture and syntax, to which the author tells us "Yawn... We're not going to do that. Instead, we will be jumping straight into the fun stuf...". And fun stuff it was. I truly enjoyed reading this book. 


It walks you through the beginnings of just getting everything setup on your computer - and trust me, for iOS development, this is NO easy task.


The author takes you from simple text fields, and button how-tos to complicated Google Map and GPS integration. Most beginner books are too simple, while other books require nothing short of a PhD in computer science to understand. Appcelerator Titanium Smartphone App Development Cookbook has found a solid balance, meeting the needs of Joe Beginner, to Johnny iPhoneAppExpert.


The examples in the book are not your typical "Hello World!" examples that you would find in your programming 101 books. These are applicable, out of the book and into your app examples. Want to create drag and drop graphics? It's in there. How about integration with Facebook and Twitter? Yep, in there. Surely it doesn't cover using your device's camera and video features. Why yes it does. In all seriousness, the author does a great job including examples that most organizations would want to use in their app.


I have already started to incorporate things learned from this book into some of our upcoming apps.


Build That App


So, to tie this journey together, if you are looking to get your organization into the mobile world of mobile apps, and are unable to afford the resources needed to train and code apps using native languages, pick up this book - I found it on Amazon - for your web team and let them code around with it. 


They will know within a week if they would be able to support your mobile app needs. 


Appcelerator Titanium,, is a free download. The book will walk you through the setup. They offer paid support solutions as well.


It's worth the investment, especially if you are trying to discover whether or not the mobile app world is where your organization should be. I'll try and touch on our mobile web strategy in the near future. I hope this is helpful to you and your organization.


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Jim Nilson is the Director of Web Communications at Northern Kentucky University. His hobbies include training in Muay Thai kickboxing, and building iPhone apps for celebrities - a lethal combination. Higher education questions can be sent to All other questions can be sent to