Monday, December 27, 2010

2010: mLearning Year in Review

A.K.A. How our January 2010 Predictions Played Out!

As we reach the first anniversary of this blog’s introduction, we thought we’d take stock and figure out how things are going by revisiting our list of predictions for enterprise mobile learning in 2010. On balance, it was an interesting year and there were far more expected outcomes than there were actual surprises. That said, the degree with which some of our past predictions came to pass proved quite varied whereas some truths were validated akin to a “base hit” in the game of baseball whereas others were “doubles” or “triples” and even a “home run” and “strikeout” or two!

So here are the predictions from 12 months ago and the tally (score) for "runs batted in" -- or at least attempted -- during the 2010 mLearning season:

  1. Traditional "e"-learning vendors will all jump into the "m"-learning and social networking spaces with "first generation" offerings they believe will address the mobile requirements of their customers and prospects; these early efforts will prove largely ineffective as evidenced by their many iterative and incremental updates, retries and course corrections.

Validated (“Double”).  Indeed, many traditional eLearning vendors ventured into the market though not in the volume or with the fanfare we had postulated twelve months ago. In fact, each of the “Four Horsemen” who rule the enterprise – namely SumTotal, Saba, Plateau & Geolearning – gave it a go in some way although no one outside their immediate customers or PR agencies seemed to notice. Several more of the Tier 2/Tier 3 LMS vendors also “tossed their hat in the ring” (or towards it anyway) announcing some way of publishing content so it could appear via a mobile browser on the iPhones, iPads and Android device trying to capture a few of their most “loyal fans” in learning land. 


  1. Rather than getting easier, the mlearning landscape will actually grow wider/deeper and far more complex as enterprises are forced to include/support several disparate mobile devices and changing end user demands; this scenario will drive further demand for enterprise-grade content authoring and delivery platforms for mobile learning.

Validated (“Triple”).  From our own experience, enterprise mLearning engagements were more complex and multi-faceted given the fact the average deployment was bigger, more varied in terms of content and devices supported, and customer/partner expectations were far higher.  As predicted, the methods and tools needed for mobile content authoring and delivery also matured a generation or two over the “season” and a few new use cases for mobile learning appeared too.  Along the way, OnPoint was asked by one of our wireless carrier customers to provide the first enterprise mobile authoring environment supporting completely separate staging/QA and production servers but allowing for content syncing to a single, secure mobile application instance on one device – a feat tantamount to hitting one over Fenway’s Green Monster but soon realized after some cleaver programming.

  1. Mobile learning will meld with social networking on every learner's mobile device making the two technologies a fully integrated experience; support for these two technologies will be an essential part of every mlearning vendor's core offerings.

Validated (“Single”). Mobile Learning and Social Networking each attained much higher hype levels across the Training & Development during the 2010 “season” and both concepts were featured topics in articles and conference sessions alike. While 2010 was certainly the year that Facebook assumed its place atop the infotech mantel and the social context of just about everything training action was contemplated, the ways and means to leverage the popular and very PUBLIC social networking and social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube and others seemed less than adequate for more security conscious enterprise organizations. OnPoint stepped up to plate here – to satiate pent-up demand in some and spark new interest in others – by introducing an integrated set of social features that blend “formal with informal” with support for PRIVATE mobile discussion forums, access to blogs and wikis, and support for mobile captured/user-generated content. Admittedly, most customers are still trying to wrap their minds around the myriad possibilities for mobile/social but many of the emerging use cases are proving to be both fascinating and rewarding.   


  1. Tablet-based content delivery of mlearning will win our "hearts & minds" over netbook-based content delivery thanks largely to the arrival of Apple's much rumored "iSlate" tablet offering. Others vendors will quickly follow/respond.

Validated (“Grand Slam Homer”). The industry finally witnessed the arrival of Apple’s highly anticipated tablet onto the field in Q1 and upon shipment somewhere around “opening day”, the appropriately named “iPad” set a standard by defining a new device category and capturing 95% of that market with 14+ million units sold in less than nine months. Reaction from Apple’s competition has predictable at the marketing level (“Yeah, we’ve got one of those too!”) but generally tepid on the delivery front (“Coming soon!” or “Wait until you see the next version!”).

From a content perspective, these new tablets take smartphone-oriented mobile learning and give it a better user experience plus they enable new and compelling long-form content types like readable PDFs as well as far more flexible ePUBs/eBook-style documents. From an enterprise developer’s point of view, the iPad proved easy to support as we quickly re-factored our CellCast Widget for the iPhone to support new user interface standards/suggestions and it all just worked! We have been pleasantly surprised at the way this new device not only captured the hearts and minds of the business and learning communities with the many new affordances it brings but also in the way organizations have simply gone and purchased 50 or 250 or even 500 iPads for execs or field workers without any plan as to how they’ll use them (or communicate with or secure them); in short, the iPad is busting down IT’s door and forcing enterprise organizations to support mobile devices beyond just the BlackBerry.

The iPad isn’t the only game in town though as Android-based devices like Samsung’s popular Galaxy Tab and RIM’s upcoming PlayBook provide alternatives that fill in some of the iPad’s perceived gaps (e.g., lack of Flash support).  There will certainly be 30+ tablet devices to choose from by mid 2011 and all will help to grow the market and a select few will actually succeed as products.  The recent release of our CellCast Widget for Android Tablets has been well received by customers especially with the inclusion of a new Flash Player template we produced that transforms Articulate Presenter content into something that sizes and plays well on Android mobiles. And while the upcoming RIM PlayBook shows potential for mobile learning delivery, we’re disappointed that the many years of development work needed to produce our BlackBerry apps yielded nothing as be began to build new Playbook apps. Sometimes the “fresh sheet of paper approach” is a good thing but here it proved quite frustrating given the fact our moves to support iOS and Android-based tablets didn’t require us to start from scratch resulting in a “swing and miss” the first time at bat.


  1. The acceptance and adoption of "cloud computing" resources for mobile learning will become commonplace as IT budgets remain strained and the complexity of mobile authoring and delivery continues to increase - especially in larger, more complex environments.

Validated (“Triple”).  This one plays on the current trend and seems to be gaining slow but steady momentum to claim the pennant. Our experience in 2010 found ALL of our new customers and partners went “hosted” instead of installing enterprise (“behind the firewall”). Given OnPoint’s hosting center is SAS70/Type II certified and we’ve proven we can keep an organization’s data safe and highly available, the many concerns IT/InfoSec harbored in past seasons no longer seem to be causing rain delays. More significantly, our growing hosted customer base now includes financial services, pharma/healthcare, government and many of the world’s leading carriers and tech OEMs who are now confident to outsource their mlearning services “into our cloud” even though they often support 1,000s to 100K+ servers of their own. 


  1. Mobile learners will begin to expect (and demand!) the ability to seamlessly manage and synchronize assignment access, delivery, review and completion between their desktop PC and their mobile device(s).

Not Validated ("Pop Fly Single" – but Caught!).  The impact here is yet to be measured or realized due to the fact that most enterprise organizations haven’t implemented let alone identified their mobile learning strategies yet. As such, the need to seamlessly manage the interaction between mobile and online learning delivery is only something that’s perceived as a challenge (or necessity) to the early adopter crowd and requires their mobile learning efforts to be fully integrated with their backend LMS platform; those select few enterprise customers entering large scale deployments are realizing the gains from true anytime, anywhere learning.


  1. Mobile learning projects delivered in established and emerging global markets will outnumber those delivered in North America (USA/Canada) due to greater interest, faster uptake and willingness to leverage mlearning on both basic feature phones as well as advanced smartphones.

Not Validated ("Strikeout"). Time has proven us wrong on this prediction as it relates to OnPoint’s direct and channel business efforts around the world. Up until 2010, the market for smartphones globally – especially those addressable for enterprise mobile learning efforts – seemed to be maturing much faster outside of North America with carrier interest and prospecting activity levels in Asia Pac, South America and EMEA leading the interest shown here. Sure, we had interest from enterprise training teams wishing to do their inaugural mobile learning pilots coming in from everywhere but the projects that seemed to go faster and grow larger were mostly here in North America and spanned industries as well as devices. We attribute these outcomes to two facts: (1) North American carriers were selling (and subsidizing) more smartphones and tablets devices as logical replacements to their subscribers’ aging feature phones and (2) the lack of any measurable interest in Nokia/Symbian-based devices across North American meant the “app craze” focused on those devices made on “this side of the pond” (e.g., Apple iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mo/Pho).

  1. In the smartphone realm, mobile web-delivered content will prove to be a less compelling mlearning experience as compared to mobile application-delivered.

Validated (“Home Run”).  The mobile learning “app” has won the day in the race for mobile device content delivery over the less interesting mobile web for a variety of reasons and we feel we’re qualified to weigh in with our opinion here given we’re one of a select few vendors who actually provides support for content delivery in either method through one unified platform. Indeed, mobile apps are harder to create and to support but the value derived from an installed app proves far more beneficial and powerful for the typical enterprise customer, especially those looking to support their own defined users rather than their more macro vendor/customer/partner ecosystems.  True, accessing mobile learning content via a device’s embedded web browser is an effective and useful delivery modality but the experience is generally watered down to what works at the lowest common denominator level.  Conversely, the mobile app experience provides better and more varied content, is FAR more secure, works anywhere the learner needs it (including when there’s no communications signal) and can integrate better into the way learners think about and use their mobile devices. In our opinion, those vendors touting the virtues of the mobile web over the mobile app have yet to figure out how to build and support mobile apps especially in multi-device deployment scenarios so buyer beware. We agree the mobile web experience is improving and so are our own offerings in the corner of the field – we just don’t think the mobile web experience can “hit against” the mobile app experience and win the game.


  1. Security will become a MUCH bigger issue for mlearning deployments and all vendors will need to step up their game to ensure content/IP protection and integrity while making access easier.

Validated ("Home Run").  This is played out to have just about as big an impact on mobile learning as the app-based tablet did (above). Securing not only the content and the whole end-to-end experience for the mobile learner became a mission critical dynamic for virtually every enterprise mobile learning engagement this year and rightly so. The very nature of a mobile device – meaning it travels everywhere with the learner in their pocket or purse – means anything staged for delivery at the moment of need is also living far outside the physical confines of the enterprise security gates imposed by the organization. Whereas an online course accessed via a portal can be launched most any time too, that same sensitive or proprietary content never finds itself in a position to be casually viewed by a learner late into the evening at a party pr by an unintended audience if their device was accidently misplaced, stolen or even innocently shared (e.g., “Yeah, check out this new product we’re selling next month!”).  Security proved to be a primary development and delivery focus throughout 2010 – both on device and on the server – and we can confidently state the mobile learning experience is now actually MORE secure than the desktop learning experience much to the pleasure and comfort of the IT department. 


  1. The arrival of Adobe's Flash Player v10.1 for (most) smartphones will prove far less significant of an event due to the fact content navigation and onscreen interactions will prove difficult on most of the currently deployed enterprise smartphones.

Validated (“Triple”).  The hype surrounding mobile Flash reached fever pitch in 2010 although little tangible effect was felt on the field of play. The controversy swirling around the lack of Flash support on the new iPad and the existing iPhone/iPod touch devices certainly drove greater awareness of the classic mobile learning content paradox – that Flash content created for the desktop doesn’t work on most smartphones.  Those just arriving at the mlearning party in 2010 for the first time seemed to find this situation especially annoying given the fact these new tablet devices had such nice screens and Internet services all ready to be tapped.  And much of the promise of Adobe’s Flasher Player v10.1 seemed to fall short of the mark as Android was really the only mobile device OS to ship with a fully functional version of that player in 2010.  RIM stated in late 2009 their support was likely to appear in BBOS6 but that didn’t happen. Microsoft focused its energies on ways to leverage its own Silverlight support within the new Windows Phone 7 environment before it adds Flash Player support.  And Apple’s public feud with Adobe promoting the coming HTML5 specification over Flash on all iOS devices was much covered too.  (NOTE: The lack of Symbian-based smartphones in the North American market meant that while Flash content on Nokia devices was possible, it just wasn’t happening much).

In those cases where Flash content actually is supported on a mobile device, not all learning content proved to be appropriate or work as expected. In our experience, sending a single “SWF” file provided strong results but attempting to push out (or access over-the-air) a Flash-based learning module on a device didn’t impress many learners (or content authors) without some basic rethinking of the content produced. The full gamut of popular rapid development tools likes Articulate Presenter, Adobe Captivate, Techsmith Camtasia Studio and many others produce content as multi-file/multi-folder outputs that tend to run sluggishly on even the most advanced mobile devices and currently offer no alternative mobile-friendly templates with skins/buttons optimized for the mobile learning experience.  As stated above, we needed to create our own specialized templates that bridge the gap between publishing for the online world and the mobile world and found solid success supporting environments with newer Android devices.


  1. By year end, HTML5 will make rich media playback on mobile devices more practical and compelling too making Flash-based content on mobile less of a need.

Not Validated ("Stikeout"). Here’s another prediction that didn't play out as we thought it would.  Indeed, HTML5 does hold great long-term promise but the specification is still very much a work in progress (due to be ratified in 2013) and only a reasonable few (read: newer, more expensive) mobile devices fully support the spec as written in today’s program. Adobe was the first to add (relent) HTML5 publication support to their Creative Suite 5 offiering and other tool vendors are starting to follow suit like Trivantis with the latest Lectora Publisher but don’t expect those tools to output learning content that works on the legacy smartphone devices you have across your enterprise. We expect more tools will provide publication to HTML5 support in the coming weeks and months of 2011. 


  1. The first several "sizable" enterprise mlearning projects using Apple iPhones and Android-based smartphones will be delivered into the marketplace as mitigated security concerns make way for a superior on-device experience versus today's standard corporate-centric BlackBerry, WinMo and Symbian (Nokia) interfaces.

Validated ("Triple").  This surely happened and several of our largest enterprise pilots and subsequent deployments were based on either iOS devices, Android devices or some combination of both. In fact, many cases where existing customers mandated BlackBerry-only deployments relented and started allowing iOS and Android-based devices into their mix.  The current is moving strong and deep towards multi-device environments now that security and content transcoding (“write once/deploy anywhere”) tasks have been largely mitigated or eliminated altogether.  And the trend towards “bring your own device” is also driving the multi-device mobile learning culture as workers are allowed to select and use whatever device they prefer at work to suit their tastes and carrier preferences. 


  1. Augmented reality applications for mobile learning will begin to appear but because solution development is expensive, technically challenging, and device dependent, AR will capture more headlines than actual budgets.

Validated ("Triple").  We continue to read a lot about it but haven’t witnessed any practical use cases deployed out in a production learning environment for training-centric Augmented Reality. Maybe next year.

Well, that’s how the game played out in our minds for 2010.  Keep an eye out for an upcoming blog post containing predictions for 2011 already shaping up to be a tournament kind of year with lots of new technologies, companies and services stepping to the plate. 

Batter up!!


  1. Great post Robert and I do agree with how most of your predictions played out but I am curious how Windows new tablet will change the playing field in 2011 (if at all) and how you feel about the CEO of RIM touting that the mobile browser will be the way to go in the future and mobile apps will disappear?

  2. Thanks Troy! New tablets based on Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 will certainly find their place into the device mix in the coming year as many an IT department will regard them (at least the former) as a safe route to go for mobile but 2010 has witnessed a sea change shift from netbooks to pads/tablets that leverage the almighty "app" and Windows Phone 7 is just approaching 5K such apps as of the end of this calendar year -- heck, we're one of the 18K registered developers working on one and will be releasing our own WinPho7 CellCast app in the next week or so ourselves with the belief there is a strong potential market in MSFT's next generation technology/platform.

    Regarding one of the RIM CEOs thinking the mobile browser will overtake the mobile app, I'd say he was hedging his bet. Indeed, AppWorld has been a disappoint for RIM in comparison to the traction Apple and Android have seen in the past year and I think the comment panders a bit towards their support of Flash on the new PlayBook device and what a "rich experience" that will deliver. But the fact is Apps are far more enterprise-oriented than web sites -- RIM's own core feature set that includes separate email, calendaring, messaging and contact functions are ALL INSTALLED APPS that contributed to their acceptance and early dominance of the enterprise device market. And remember this: in 2007 Apple also though the future of mobile was going to be "mobile web apps" but within a year they relented and released Xcode for iPhone to the developers and created a whole new market segment in the process.

  3. Will Mobile learning get its speed by 2012?


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