Mobile first. It is a stratgey that many companies strive toward but only a handful fully realize. Big names like Facebook, Amazon, Mozilla and Microsoft delve into the mobile pool but still provide fundamentally desktop and browser-based offerings. Google components, even with its Android operating system, are still primarily Web-centric. When it comes to true “mobile first,” there are only a handful of companies that have taken the plunge.

The Top Tier of Mobile First

Think of an app or a service and how you interact with it. Do you use it primarily with your smartphone and/or tablet, or is it something you use with your PC? Chances are, you still do most of your Google searches, Facebook posts, Amazon purchases and Windows (including Bing) activities on your computer. These tasks come from browser-based companies, all of which even make their own browsers (except for Facebook, and Amazon’s browser is its Kindle Fire-based Silk). 

From a consumer perspective, the top mobile-first companies are all app-centric. These companies provide services that could be done from a PC but provide the service specifically for mobile platforms. Examples include reading news, watching videos, social networking, photography, location and check-ins, and many other similar services. Right now, the top tier of mobile-first companies are the ones that understand that the mobile experience is fundamentally different from a PC experience - and then develop and design their services specifically with mobile interactions in mind. 

The best consumer mobile-first companies (in no particular order):

Twitter was also under consideration for this list. Twitter started as a way to disrupt text messaging within a social context, but has evolved into much more than that. Ironically, Twitter growth means that it no longer really qualifies as a mobile-first company. 

The common theme for first-tier mobile-first companies is that they typically do not have a meaningful Web presence. Path was designed specifically to be a mobile-only social network. Instagram evolved into one after beginning as a photo-sharing service. There is no significant Foursquare Web presence. Flipboard, Zite and Pulse have redefined how news is aggregated and read in the mobile era. LevelUp and Dwolla are attempting to create mobile-first payment infrastructures from the local level. Lookout is a unique security company that focuses on mobile, and Dolphin is a major mobile-only browser. 

Then we have games. The explosion of mobile has given rise to the independent gaming studio. Rovio, Halfbrick and ZeptoLabs are top mobile-first game publishers, and OMGPop had a big mobile hit with Draw Something before it was acquired by Zynga (which is not a mobile-first company by any stretch). 

Facebook, meanwhile, may have the most-used mobile app of all time, but that doesn't make it a mobile-first company. Facebook’s core tenets are the browser and the social graph. Mobile is the sauce on top of its desktop-centric steak. While Facebook's head of mobile developer relations James Pearce said that, “if Facebook were built now, it would be a mobile app,” the fact remains that it was built eight years ago and is firmly entrenched as a browser-based system. 

Note that we are not counting manufacturers in this discussion. That precludes companies such as Nokia, Research In Motion, HTC and Motorola - all of which build mobile devices and, in one way or another, have mobile-first services. 

On Background

In addition to the consumer-centric mobile services, we also have to look at the platforms used to build and run these apps. (Let's leave enterprise mobility out of the discussion, for now.): 

We can call these platform-makers “background” companies, because the average consumer has no idea they even exist. Operating in the background, they provide tools designed to enable mobile-first development. That includes frameworks, Integrated Developer Environments, SDK and API providers, analytics and engagement specialists, location, testing and cloud-service providers. 

The top mobile-first background companies include (in no particular order):

There is a lot of overlap here. Many of these companies provide one core service but also branch out into services that are considered the core offerings of other companies on the list.

Flurry is one of the go-to analytics services for a large swath of app developers. Localytics plays in that space, as well. StackMob, Kinvey and Parse are mobile cloud-service providers (Backend as a Service), a space that Appcelerator, Sencha, appMobi and Zipline also inhabit. Zipline is interesting as an environment and cloud-service provider specifically for games built with Lua programming language. DeviceAnywhere provides a “device cloud” for testing purposes. Sencha, appMobi and Appcelerator provide tools for building apps, with appMobi and Sencha focusing specifically on HTML5. PlayHaven is an engagement and analytics dashboard for gaming. Flurry and Apsalar also focus on mobile app-user engagement. Geoloqi provides a platform for persistent background location services. Crashlytics is one of the most innovative companies looking into app testing. 

Note that we did not include the major platform providers: Google, Apple, Microsoft and RIM provide tools to develop for Android, iOS, Windows Phone and BlackBerry, respectively. Google, Microsoft and Apple are not mobile first by any stretch, and RIM’s current troubles preclude it from being on any list of best companies.

We recognize that these lists are incomplete. Anytime we compile lists of the best anything, someone is going to feel slighted. We regret any omissions, and invite everyone to add their thoughts in the comments and let the ecosystem know about important Mobile First companies, apps or services that didn't make our lists.

Lead image and image of smartphone courtesy of Shutterstock.