MWF: The UC Mobile Solution
We all know mobile devices are flooding the market. A recent study found that mobile devices now outnumber the U.S. population. Mobile data traffic rose 111-percent between 2010 to 2011 (source). So it’s clear folks aren’t using these devices just to make phone calls; they’re sending and receiving information through apps, texts and mobile websites.
Since the debut of the Google’s mobile operating system, many carriers now offer touch based Android phones free with the purchase of a two year contract. This has opened up the smartphone revolution to more than just early adopters — frequently, our students. Faculty, staff, alumni and parents either have a smartphone or will have one within the next couple years. As a result, a broader group is now accessing campus information on mobile devices.
Meanwhile, budgets in higher ed. are shrinking, especially for state funded institutions. From Florida to California, state budget shortfalls are resulting in reduced services and layoffs. This has put pressure on campus IT departments to do more with less.In addition to the slashed budgets, universities have to consider quite a bit in developing a mobile strategy. What devices do you support? Do you go the app route or do you build for the mobile web browser? If you don’t have a centralized IT department with all the data you’d want to offer in a mobile solution, how do you display this disparate information in a cohesive way?
All these questions –and more– came up as UC San Diego explored how we wanted to support the mobile revolution. We began in 2009 by launching an iPhone app, one of the first public universities in the U.S. to do so. Working with a startup called TerriblyClever, we provided data feeds and they built an app that contained maps, directory, sports, and a course catalog. For a year or so, the app was a hit.
But as the Android platform became more popular, we were pressured to support those devices. In addition, students also wanted a mobile view of their course schedule, grades and other information.
In early 2010, the vendor we worked with to build the iPhone app was bought by Blackboard. Plus, other campus IT units were interested in mobilizing their applications and were looking to us for a common solution. We needed to re-examine our strategy.
Our investigation kicked off in the spring of 2010. IT units across campus came together to develop a mobile strategy that would be the basis for analyzing potential technical solutions. The first order of business was to create a set of guiding principles:
- The solution should be device agnostic as we don’t have resources to learn programming languages for each new operating system that pops up.
- The solution should support a federated architecture. It would be hosted in one place but leveraged by different IT groups on campus.
- It should work with any programming language as we our staff develop in Java, PHP, .NET, etc.
- It should be non-proprietary and support modern web standards.
These standards set the stage for researching frameworks that would meet our needs. We decided to divide and conquer; identifying frameworks that adhered to our principles and doing a deeper dive into the ones that bubbled up to the top.
Based on our guidelines, the mobile web was our target solution. Our analysis revealed most web frameworks developed out of higher ed relied on centrally hosted mobile applications. We were looking for something that could be used across a distributed environment.
It was about this time we started talking to UCLA about the mobile framework they developed from the ground up. Being a fellow UC school, they shared many of the same goals and challenges we had. As we delved deeper into the “secret sauce” behind their framework, we liked what we saw. It was lightweight, worked on all devices, and allowed for the development of mobile apps using any technology. For developers to use it, all they’d have to do is include two lines of code in their application and they were off and running. The framework did the rest. It was too easy!
At about the same time UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, and UC Riverside also expressed interest in using the framework. Fast forward to today: five out of the 10 UC schools are now in production. The remaining fiveUC schools are deploying within the next few weeks to months.
The framework has been rebranded as the UC Mobile Web Framework (MWF) as those of us in production are contributing back to the framework’s core. Interest has grown outside the University of California network to use and contribute back to the framework so a Source Available license was developed to support the open source interest. A core team of developers and managers meet every other week to share information about campus deployments and collaborate on a road map to steer the direction of the MWF.
One of the more recent contributions included a device-specific app container that points back to the campus mobile site using MWF. Let’s face it, iPhone and Android apps have a certain cache. At UC San Diego, we already had the iPhone app the vendor built for us and we didn’t want to abandon that. The app container allowed us to wrap our mobile site in an app that could be downloaded from the app store. For anyone that already had the vendor-built app installed on their phone, they would simply “update” to the new version and the one maintained by us would be automatically downloaded.
We shared our app containers with the other schools using the MWF. These apps are now available for download or in review by Apple for each school.
The fast-paced mobile revolution has forged grassroots collaboration across the UC campuses. Our shoestring budgets demand we leverage each other’s ideas and resources to keep up with the demand of the higher ed community. It’s an exciting and challenging time to be a web developer in the midst of this new era of computing. If you are interested in participating we welcome your interest.