This week, Managing eLearning features a guest blog from Andy Hicken, Web Courseworks’ Product Innovation Specialist.

graphic showing market share of various devices; PCs are in steep decline

The PC’s declining share of sales. Source: Asymco.

Stanford Computer Science professor Balaji Srinivasan’s MOOC on Startup Engineering, in which I am enrolled, assigns Asymco’s post The Rise and Fall of Personal Computing as first-week reading. One could quibble with a few of Asymco’s details–would the PC’s decline in market share look as steep or sudden if more early tablet and PDA-type devices were included?–but it’s difficult to argue with the deeper message. The Zeitgeist has shifted. Few of us lust after a sleek laptop anymore, and desktops are impossibly location-based (even if cheap and powerful): the mobile wave has broken all around us.

In response, Srinivasan advocates for a mobile-first approach to sites and web-app design. Srinivasan’s version of mobile-first means, simply, thinking first of how your product will work on a touchscreen device. If the product is designed right, laptop and desktop compatibility will come along “for free.” Again, it’s difficult to argue with that logic.

As Srinivasan points out, mobile-first for beginners need not mean more than using HTML5 to develop touchscreen-friendly products. The HTML5 standard is supposed to replace a number of plugins (most prominently Flash) that were used to add interactivity to our web browsers, and is strongly supported by mobile browsers. The reason laptops and desktops come along “for free” is that they can easily handle your HTML5-driven sites–unless they’re on corporate intranets restricted to earlier versions of Internet Explorer that don’t support HTML5. (Incidentally, this is somewhat validating for Web Courseworks.)

In eLearning, one hears stirrings of mobile-first, despite the sector’s historical dependence on Flash-based authoring tools. Articulate’s new Storyline product exports to HTML5 (albeit without 508 compliance). Moodle community discussion boards have seen discussions of a mobile-first strategy for the open-source LMS. Even Flash is now offering an HTML5-export feature.

I don’t expect the classic, keyboard-and-mouse driven user interface to die off entirely. Just as GUI-based operating systems (i.e., the Macintosh OS and Windows) didn’t kill the command-line-based OS (i.e., Linux), the mobile touchscreen will not completely kill the keyboard and mouse. But we will see a more diverse ecosystem, with keyboard-and-mouse devices perhaps becoming a niche product for certain users, much as the Linux command line has become a niche UI for developers and sysadmins (of course, many of us use the Linux kernel through the GUIs offered by OSX and Android, but the usage of the Linux command-line UI represents a tiny fraction of the market share of command-line UIs in the mid-1980s, when the dominant mass-market devices were PCs running MS-DOS, the Commodore 64, and the Apple II). Mobile touchscreen devices–with their much greater accessibility and lower barriers to entry–will dominate many of the activities that we have traditionally done on our keyboard-and-mouse devices.

This is already happening. You needn’t be a tech guru to see the movement of activities like browsing, casual gaming, and media consumption to the mobile touchscreen device. So why not mobile-first eLearning? It’s tough to argue with it.