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Toyota's mobile app mandate: iPhone, iPad first

Tom Kaneshige | March 14, 2011
ow did Toyota navigate the tricky road between designing for multiple platforms and pleasing phone users who want native apps? Hint: Follow the signs to Apple.

FRAMINGHAM, 14 MARCH 2011 - Taking a page from its post-World War II Japanese roots, embattled car maker Toyota has turned to a business philosophy known as kaizen, or fanatical focus on continuous improvement. Last summer, kaizen showed up in the company's mobile app effort.

Toyota wanted to build a mobile shopping app that would let consumers window shop among its 16 types of vehicles with more than 130 color options, find nearby dealers, and even take pictures of a vehicle identification number, or VIN, to get specific information about a car.

But what mobile device should Toyota design for? BlackBerry? That would not have been very kaizen. "If we had developed for RIM devices first and ported to the iPhone, you could have an argument that we were dumbing down our app," says Michael K. Nelson, interactive communications manager at Toyota who handles "RIM is not a very sophisticated platform at all."

Toyota eventually delivered a mobile shopping app tuned for the iPhone, but then followed up with an Android app two weeks later and a BlackBerry app two weeks after that. Then Toyota added the VIN-photo feature to all three platforms. Today, Toyota is working on a tablet app that takes advantage of the iPad 2's camera.

Companies looking to tap into the power of mobile apps often think they either have to develop a native app for a single platform or a vanilla app for multiple platforms. A native app leverages all of a platforms strengths yet risks the future if the platform falters. A vanilla app can run on and add features across platforms yet usually doesn't offer a compelling user experience.

So how did Toyota get the best of both worlds?

The Mobile App Conundrum

In the early days of smartphones, there was only one clear choice for app developer: iPhones. But the emergence of Android devices and all of its OS flavors has cast a harsh light on the issue. A recent Nielsen survey found that Android is the most popular smartphone operating system in the United States, surpassing both iPhone and BlackBerry; mobile app developers can no longer ignore the Android platform.

The pendulum is swinging toward multi-platform apps and even browser-based Web services on tablets, given that tablets' big browsers render Web sites well. (Toyota decided against pinning its tablet strategy on Web services, because its Web site uses a lot of Flash, which isn't supported on the iPad Safari browser.)

Among tablets, the iPad will no doubt increase its lead with iPad 2 shipping last week. According to results of a ChangeWave Research survey released last week, 82 percent of future tablet buyers say they'll be purchasing an iPad. But iPad's dominance is far from certain given the more than 80 Android tablets coming to market this year. Will they follow in the footsteps of Android smartphones?


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