(We have created an 8-part comprehensive report containing a series of two-to-three page “briefs.” This is part 4: mLearning devices and platforms: What you need to know. If you would like to see the collection in its entirety, click here.)

The issue that halts enthusiasm for mLearning is the device wars. People want to know which device to use. Our answer is that companies need to be prepared to support multiple devices and that the issue REALLY needs to be tablet versus smartphone.

Our observations gleaned from mLearn 2011 regarding devices:

  • • Blackberry produces the least appealing mobile solution. We saw solutions that had visual appeal, but you can’t get around the massive amount of scrolling required to review anything.
  • • Don’t attempt to repurpose an entire course if your end destination is a smartphone. Lots of people presented case studies of situations where they tried to do just that – and traditional doesn’t translate well. Mobile shouldn’t be viewed as simply another way to consume traditional eLearning…it should be a true solution to a specific problem that cannot be solved by a desktop solution.
  • • iPhone and Android provide similar user experiences. At a minimum, the design for each LOOKS the same. Whether users would report they prefer using an iPhone over an Android is a separate discussion.
  • • A tablet such as an iPad is preferable to any smartphone if the solution is truly a “course” versus a just-in-time performance support tool. You only want to look at/read so many tiny screens before you wish you could see things on a bigger screen.
  • • Video is an acceptable replacement for Flash. Because iPhones and iPads do not support Flash – and most traditional e-courses leverage a lot of it – there is a lot of conversion of Flash animations to video formats. This shift works pretty well.
  • • iPad dominates the tablets…but the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. Right now, the iPad and iPad2 have 75% of market share; no other device commands more than 6% of it. However, Samsung’s second generation tablet is a worthy competitor to the iPad – and it supports Flash, external devices, and upgrades – things the iPad does not.
  • • HTML5 is rapidly evolving as the authoring language of choice for web applications – and the tool that enables “build it once; deploy it across all devices.” By the end of 2011, HTML5 will be supported on all major mobile browsers. It eliminates the need to author multiple times to suit specific devices.
  • • Expect people to consume mLearning on personal devices, not just company-provided ones. At mLearn 2011 pilots all seemed to focus on company-provided devices. However, once pilots were over, the practice appeared to be that companies opened access to personal devices – and actually assumed personal devices WOULD BE the means by which people accessed mobile learning. Example: PwC started out stating the solution had to be delivered over a Blackberry. As soon as pilot concluded, they decided to allow a range of personal devices that included both iPhones and Android phones.

Web application or native application?

Not all “apps” come from an app store. A web application requires a browser and an Internet connection; a native application is downloaded to the phone – typically from an online store such as the App Store or the Android Marketplace.

There is no definitive “best choice” for learning here. There are logical reasons for choosing one over the other in specific instances. People are using both types of applications with success and companies are actually creating their own versions of app stores so employees can download company-specific apps. A few comparators:

Web App


  • • Content remains secure on your servers, no data is stored on the device
  • • Updates immediately affect all users
  • • Web-apps require no approval, fees, or placement process within a commercial app store
  • • The content created for a web app can be platform agnostic


  • • Requires Internet access
  • • Requires a web URL; you must host it on a server
  • • Less “snazzy” than a native app. Features and functionality are limited, especially with regards to access to device features
  • • Slower speed than native app

Native App


  • • Does not require Internet access
  • • Generally perform better as far as speed and fluidity (animation, graphics, UI responsiveness)
  • • Maintains full access to device features (camera/gyroscope/microphone/compass/accelerometer/GPS)
  • • Can provide a more robust experience – if one is needed


  • • Platform specific, code is not easily transported to other devices/platforms
  • • Native app stores require an approval process; for each device, the app has to go onto a different store
  • • Once the application is downloaded, it’s on the phone, which some companies may regard as a negative*
  • (*This issue is rapidly become a non-issue with some companies as they begin to realize that any emails employees download to the phone could be equally or more compromising. The benefits outweigh the risks of loss/theft in these instances.)

What about IT?

IT functions are struggling to keep up with this onslaught of mobile devices. Working with companies’ internal IT functions was cited by mLearning 2011 participants as a significant challenge to introducing mobile learning. IT departments have limited resources; they fear having to support a myriad of devices.

This quote from a recent survey by iPass summarizes the direction that needs to occur if a company has a significant mobile workforce. The bold-faced emphasis is ours:

“Do not fight the tide of mobile workers using rogue devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Mobile workers are highly productive and work more hours annually than their non-mobile peers. It is clear that your mobile professionals value tablets as a work device, and they already have a smartphone – so embrace these devices regardless if they are IT managed or not, but definitely put policies in place on acceptable use and train employees on those policies so that they understand how to secure the data on these devices.

Ensure your employees at least have access to work email on their unprovisioned smartphone or tablet. Most employees will check email before they start their workday, and this simple, but powerful tool ensures that they can be more responsive to business demands.”

Our Bottom-Line advice?

Forget about developing for only one device or for mandating Blackberry as the only supported device. The more important question is what device makes the most sense for what you want to accomplish? Do you need to optimize for a smartphone or for a tablet? If you know it’s a smartphone, then be realistic about what is palatable for a learner to consume on a phone, which is not a full-length course with lots of learning activities! If you want people to access courses, think tablet not phone.