Interview: Oke Okaro, general manager and global head of mobile at Bloomberg

Bloomberg's mobile chief talks to Computer Weekly about the challenges of mobile apps development and the prospects for Windows 8.

Oke Okaro is general manager and head of mobile at Bloomberg, where he is responsible for delivering content. The news service runs on a diverse range of tablet and smartphone devices, and all its apps and websites are developed in-house.

Bloomberg has made significant strides in mobile this past year, launching the Bloomberg Businessweek+, Bloomberg Radio+ and  Bloomberg TV+ apps along with two new mobile websites.

Okaro joined two years ago, having previously worked at sports TV station ESPN. He has been at the heart of the mobile data revolution, from the early days of 9.6Kbps data access over GSM networks to the advent of 4G today. He has worked in the mobile sector for 11 years, starting at Qualcomm, where he introduced data services on the Verizon network, worked on the first mobile apps in the US and the first wave of mobile websites. He started ESPN’s mobile business which he ran for six years.

Okaro says the world has changed over his time in the industry, to what he describes as “a post PC 'prosumer' era.” 

“We have access to devices that are more integrated into our lives,” he says. 

Many of the tasks that were previously achieved on a PC, can now be done quite easily on a tablet computer. At the same, he says, “In this prosumer era, we will see a merging of the PC and entertainment.”

Windows 8: merging PCs and tablets

Having recently attended Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Okaro was struck by the strong focus on the consumer, compared to previous years. In fact, Microsoft chose MWC to unveil the consumer preview of Windows 8. The difference between the new operating system (OS) and previous releases is that Windows 7 was a traditional desktop OS while Windows 8 is attempting to embrace tablet-based computing, says Okaro: “Microsoft is attempting to merge the PC experience with the tablet experience.” 

He sees huge potential in Windows 8 for Bloomberg and other businesses that produce mobile content.

In the past, PCs have been favoured by people for creating new content, while tablets are more for content consumers. Today, consumers are less likely to use PCs for entertainment - Okaro says that people are increasingly using devices other than traditional PCs to consume content.

But he believes Windows 8 will blur the divide between the PC and tablet. 

“Windows 8 will deliver a new era. PCs were invented for productivity, they were not invented for entertainment. Tablets were originally built as entertainment devices, but they have become devices that also save people a lot of time,” he says.

“Today I carry an iPad and a Macbook Air. In the future I will be able to carry a Windows tablet. When I get into the office I will be able to dock it and connect my mouse. I will have everything at my fingertips. Microsoft has given a lot of thought to the experience.”

Will Windows 8 be a target platform for Bloomberg? There is opportunity with the new Windows platform that Okaro believes Bloomberg cannot ignore: “There are people for whom Windows 8 will be a natural evolution from what they already have today.”

Bloomberg’s goal as an organisation, across its mobile, web, and TV platforms, is to deliver information business executives need to make better informed decisions. He says, “We need to be on the device platforms with an experience that is optimal for our users, so long as there is critical mass on those platforms.”

While there will be cases when Bloomberg follows consumer trends, Okaro says sometimes Bloomberg will lead - so there is a business case to support Windows 8 as a mobile platform. 

He says, “Windows has a very large installed base. Traditionally when there is a new release, there is a very rapid uptake. I think this Windows 8 release will be a good one so Microsoft will gain critical mass quickly.”

Okaro is convinced Windows 8 is a game-changer, in that it provides a way for companies to redefine their traditional approach to the web.

The device nightmare

Apple is clearly an important mobile platform. “Apple is an incredibly innovative company, but what separates Apple from everyone else is that it has full control of its ecosystem -  the app store, the hardware, operating system and distribution. The Apple platform is a completely different challenge compared to the android devices,” says Okaro.

That said, Bloomberg produces content and apps and a website that must be available on multiple platforms. It is a challenge that Okaro is  having to focus on.

“It can be challenging supporting multiple devices and operating systems. Up until 18 months ago on Android you didn’t have the opportunity to choose what devices you wanted your apps to run on.  Now you can select the five devices that are most important to you and test that the apps work flawlessly on these,” he says.

But testing is key and it is continuous work, he adds: “When Apple releases a new version of its operating system a lot of things will break. We will have to update our apps, and there is then another version of the OS to test. There may be new hardware and consumers will expect an optimal experience so testing take longer. But what about legacy devices, since there will always be some people who may wish to run new apps on older smartphones."

For Okaro, this is a common situation. He says, “Looking at when Apple released Newsstand, if you run iOS 5.0 you will want to have Bloomberg on Newsstand. Now on Newsstand , all the content is backed up to Apple iCloud.  We virtually have no content on the device. But on non-Newsstand versions of Bloomberg, all data is held on the device."

So the task of testing multiple OS platforms, multiple hardware platforms, all with different capabilities is far from easy. And there is also the issue of Bloomberg’s global reach, which means subscribers around the world expect the same level of service, in terms of the speed of content delivery.  

“We have built a library of devices running different versions of the OS so we can do our testing across different networks to ensure that we are delivering the best user experience,” says Okaro.

Fortunately for Bloomberg, its target audience generally migrates to new hardware consistently: “Our audience - business executives - are early adopters and 75% of our target demographic are smartphone users.” 

But Okaro recognises that some content developers will be more challenged by the need to support legacy smartphone devices. However,  apps can be built in a way that segregates new advancements in hardware and software, allowing the same app to run both on legacy devices and the latest smartphones, he says.

It is not all about apps

Of the 7.8 monthly unique users of Bloomberg, 4.8 million users come from mobile web. For Okaro, the mobile web is something that should not be ignored: “When you run a search, it brings you to the mobile web site, if you click a Twitter URL, it takes you to a website.”

So the web is an important facet of Bloomberg’s mobile strategy. Developing a good mobile experience poses different challenges to mobile app development, but there are similarities, he says: “You are making a consistent experience across multiple devices. You tend to worry about whether the device has a touch interface, and the different versions of CSS [HTML cascading style sheets] that are supported, along with which codecs [for video and audio rendering] are installed, how much storage is offline and whether there is access to online storage.”

The good news is that HTML is a standard and HTML 5.0 will help deliver rich internet content in a standard way. But Okaro warns that it will take time for HTML 5.0 to become a common standard, and optimal across a broad range of devices. 

"The standards bodies are thinking about HTML5 based on the world we know today. By the time they get all their ducks in a row, the device manufacturers will have moved on,” he says.

Even as the standard evolves, Okaro believes that over the next 18 months,  HTML5-based websites will still be challenged from a performance point of view compared to a native app, due to browser performance . He says, “HTML 5.0 does not have low-level controls. These are the things you would have to build into an app yourself. Certain features [available in an app] may not be optimal in HTML 5.0.”

For Okaro the question of whether to develop an HTML 5.0 website for mobile users, or a mobile app, is not an “either or” choice.

“The future will be a hybrid user experience, heavily dependent on HTML5 to allow easy porting across devices, but you will also want to be discovered in the app store. The native apps layer will allows you to do things on the device that not possible in HTML5 alone.”

He estimates that  80% of an application will be developed as an HTML5 website, while 20% will be a native mobile  app. Such hybrid apps exist today, according to Okaro: “When you see Facebook on a mobile browser, it provides 80% of the user experience, but Facebook also has built a native wrapper [ie an app], which is available in the app store.”

Getting mobile right

Okaro’s main piece of advice is: “Make sure you have a great mobile experience. Then , if you want to do something special for an audience, which has a critical mass on a particular device, then you should create an app.” But there is no need to rush into developing a mobile app unless it is really necessary for specific device functionality.

At a higher level, the issue of mobile apps and mobile site functionality boils down to relevance.

“It is about the context. Make sure what you develop makes the most sense,” he says.  

“People need to think about what is most important for their users, then focus on implementing three of those ideas exceptionally well.”

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