Mobile hardware constantly changes as OEMs find ways to push the limits of what's possible with a mobile device. Such mobile hardware changes have implications for the entire application development and delivery cycle, including mobile software testing.
QA teams therefore need to stay on top of new trends and ensure the apps they help manage work on outdated devices for as long as possible, while also taking advantage of new hardware features. It's a tough balancing act.
To help QA engineers stay on top of what’s coming next in mobile hardware, this post examines some of the latest innovations on the mobile front, and explains what each means for mobile testing.
About a decade ago when smartphones were introduced, OEMs had to tackle very basic issues like RAM capacity, battery capacity and power management. Today, mobile devices have been greatly optimized in these aspects, and there is only marginal improvement for phones that have 6GB of RAM, and 5000mAH batteries.
Today, the battle for hardware supremacy has shifted to other high-level functionality like display size and quality. The most recent trend in display technology is the quest for the bezelless, or edge-to-edge display. Devices with curved displays helped carve out additional space for viewing content. The physical buttons below the display were replaced with virtual ones within the display. Then, the iPhone X made the notch design popular, which others are now emulating. Every other day, there's a new type of notch touted by an OEM looking to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. Looking ahead, there is discussion about foldable displays to drastically increase screen real estate.
For application developers and mobile testers, the challenge is to ensure applications can adapt to the various types of displays on mobile devices. This means that content needs to be shown within the right boundaries so that user interaction is not hampered. Vital functions like scrolling need to be considered. Additionally, the app's UI should feel native, irrespective of the display.
iOS and Android are taking steps to bake in these features by default so that you can build an app once and have it rendered automatically on all devices. However, there are cases where a manual tweak for a particular OS version or device type will be needed.
When dealing with such variation in devices and displays, it's difficult to maintain an in-house hardware device lab. Instead, the smarter route is to leverage a real device testing cloud that has a wide range of devices available on-demand. And you can view the progress of any test in the form of a recorded video. This way, you can cover the majority of devices before release and zero in on edge cases in a reactive manner, never having to worry about buying a device that few people use, is hard to get a hold of, and costs a lot.
For much of the past decade, smartphones were unlocked with an on-screen PIN or a pattern, but recently, biometric sensors are being used to unlock a device. First, it was the addition of a fingerprint sensor, and then a face recognition sensor. Some phones go the cheaper route of using the selfie camera instead of a face sensor. This has implications on security, and should be carefully implemented. For example, a face recognition sensor could be subverted by using a person's photo instead of the person.
It's possible to leverage a device's biometric sensors to give secure access to a mobile app, and many bank apps are starting to use fingerprint sensors and Face ID. However, it's important to test these sensors to be sure that access is secured.
In the future, fingerprint sensors and face recognition sensors will be embedded behind the display so they aren't visible externally but will provide the same functionality. As this technology progresses, it's important to test new implementations of the technology adequately before adopting it in a mobile app.
NFC (Near Field Communication) is a trend on the horizon which enables users to wirelessly charge phones, and even execute wireless transactions using a mobile device. It's biggest promise is in enabling one-tap payments using a mobile device so that a user doesn't even have to swipe a card to pay for something. Additionally, GPS and proximity sensors are being used to deliver targeted and contextual advertising to consumers.
Apps that support offline activities like retail POS and in-store experiences need to be equipped to handle new kinds of fraud sparked by these new innovations. Additionally, there should be a thorough audit of how user information is handled by the application. Especially with more stringent GDPR regulations, violations in the use of user data can be costly for any organization. This is where security testing should go beyond passwords, and take into account how data is accessed, stored, and transferred, whether it's on the same mobile device, or a third-party vendor app in the cloud.
For the foreseeable future, native mobile apps will have the upper hand over mobile web apps because of their deeper integration with device hardware and the more powerful functionality they afford. However, with ever-changing device specs, application development and testing should take into account new advances in mobile technology so that apps can not only include cutting-edge features, but also deliver them in a secure and elegant way.
Twain is a Fixate IO Contributor and began his career at Google, where, among other things, he was involved in technical support for the AdWords team. His work involved reviewing stack traces, and resolving issues affecting both customers and the Support team, and handling escalations. Later, he built branded social media applications, and automation scripts to help startups better manage their marketing operations. Today, as a technology journalist he helps IT magazines, and startups change the way teams build and ship applications.