Mobile Web Design: State of the Mobile Web

~ 02 August 2005 ~

This is the first article in the three-part series,
“Mobile Web Design”
Mobile Web Design, a book by Cameron Moll

With great pleasure I announce an unexpected but welcome adjustment to the Mobile Web Design series: Brian Fling has assumed the role of technical editor for the four articles to be published in the series. He’s been entrenched in mobile design for nearly five years, and his love for the Mobile Web is matched only by his contempt for its current limitations.

Brian publishes thoughts and portfolio work at FlingMedia.com, and expect his recent launch of MobileDesign.org to quickly rise to the top of Mobiles’ visit lists.

Now on with the series.

A couple months prior to WebVisions 2005, I posed a series of questions to Josh Williams of Firewheel Design. Apart from royalty-free stock icons at IconBuffet and the newly launched Blinksale invoicing app, Josh and his crew design the front-end UI for a plethora of Java apps available on Sprint and Verizon phones. So the mobile web — at least the U.S.-based one — is nothing new to Firewheel Design.

“Yo Josh,” I said, or something equivalent in friendly vernacular. “Tell me your thoughts regarding XHTML and CSS for mobile devices.”

Josh began his answer with eloquent bluntness: “Sadly, the current state of mobile browser support for XHTML/CSS makes the web standards battle that raged fiercely a couple years ago look like a cakewalk.” He continued in detail, and eventually wrapped up his answer with a blend of language half Napoleon Dynamite, half Forrest Gump: “The mobile web is pretty much like a box of chocolates.”

“Sadly, the current state of mobile browser support for XHTML/CSS makes the web standards battle that raged fiercely a couple years ago look like a cakewalk.”  –Josh Williams

Mike Davidson, who recently made the jump from Disney Internet Group to entrepreneurship, views the current mobile web in much the same vein as Josh. “Designing for handhelds, set-top boxes, and any other resolution markedly less than 800x600 is just not a very ‘fun’ designer-like undertaking at this point,” Mike observes. “It may never be.”

Or will it? After all, it’s not like the mobile web is ill-frequented. In the UK, users downloaded 8 billion pages to their web-enabled phones during the course of 2003 (source). Here in the U.S., the numbers also seem hefty, with 21.6 million people accessing the mobile web in May 2005 (source).

But what Mike Davidson and Josh Williams point to are concerns not necessarily about accessing the mobile web, but instead developing for it. And that’s where the frustration begins. The variety of screen sizes, devices, user agents, and operating platforms is astounding. XHTML and CSS support is all over the map. “Standards” are virtually non-existent.

By now, those of you in Europe and other parts of the world are wondering where all this U.S.-centric banter is headed. Take comfort knowing we, the article’s authors, fully realize we Yankees are mobile laggards compared to our Brit and Japanese counter-parts. We’re a good 12 to 24 months behind the adoption and usage rates of some of the more affluent areas of the world, and we don’t hide behind the facts.

By now, those of you in Europe and other parts of the world are wondering where all this U.S.-centric banter is headed.

However, we’re looking to the future of the Mobile Web, where’s it’s headed, or better yet, where it’s supposed to be headed, regardless of geographic differences. If by authoring this series we have any influence on the direction of that path, we’ll sleep well at night knowing we’ve completed the task we set out to accomplish.

And we’re not alone. In May 2005, the W3C, the leading consortium for the World Wide Web, announced the launch of the Mobile Web Initiative (MWI). In the official press release, W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee recognized that “mobile access to the Web has been a second class experience for far too long.” He continues, “MWI recognizes the mobile device as a first class participant, and will produce materials to help developers make the mobile Web experience worthwhile.” It may be too early to tell, but with sponsoring organizations such as Nokia, Ericsson, France Telecom, Vodafone, and NTT DoCoMo on board, there’s hope the initiative toward a more worthwhile mobile web will be a unified one.

Yet unity could inevitably come at the expense of carriers and device manufacturers, who ultimately control the mobile web user experience. If unity, even “standards”, negatively impact the bottom line, we expect W3C’s MWI will be virtually powerless against those who really write the rules — the carriers and manufacturers.

If unity, even “standards”, negatively impact the bottom line, we expect W3C’s MWI will be virtually powerless against those who really write the rules — the carriers and manufacturers.

Further, as of this writing, OpenWave — a dominant browser developer with the second largest mobile install base and the brains behind XHTML Mobile Profile (covered later in this series) — has yet to join the party. Without OpenWave, MWI could potentially do very little. Update: OpenWave are part of MWI. See comment from W3C’s Dean Jackson.

However, if we learned only one thing from the “desktop web” standards movement in recent years, it’s that even the most behemoth organizations listen if the wheel squeaks loudly enough. And where listening ears are found, there lies also the potential for change.

However, if we learned only one thing from the “desktop web” standards movement in recent years, it’s that even the most behemoth organizations listen if the wheel squeaks loudly enough.

On that note, consider some of the more encouraging signs of mobile design and development:

  • There are three times as many mobile phones as PCs worldwide, and that gap doesn’t show any signs of decreasing
  • Virtually all phones on the market today are web-enabled
  • Google maintains a separate index for “true” mobile-friendly sites, Google Mobile
  • Mobile startups are currently experiencing large amounts of investment dollars
  • Location-based services, such as GPS and RFID technologies, are right around the corner, providing local context to web content

Need more to substantiate the jump to mobile? Try 10 Reasons to Publish to Mobile, hot off the presses and authored by Brian Fling.

So in short, we know mobile users are already accessing the web on their devices, and we can safely bet they’ll continue to do so. The question then becomes, How do we design for the mobile web? A superb question, indeed, and one that will have to be answered in Part Two: Methods to the Madness.

About the Authors

Cameron Moll is a freelance new media designer, with a passion for functional web design, clean markup, and savvy print design. Some say this one-page PDF sums things up quite nicely. Others say his website does the trick.

Brian Fling has been entrenched in mobile design for nearly five years. His love for the Mobile Web is matched only by his contempt for its current limitations. He publishes thoughts and portfolio work at FlingMedia.com and MobileDesign.org.
 

11  Comments

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1   Jim Jeffers ~ 02 August 2005 at 01:47 PM

I’m really glad you guys are looking into this. Mobile design is something that has baffled me for quite some time now. I feel there is no real platform to focus on becuase of all of the different devices that display in different ways. Coming up with a design that can be ran on all of them is not as easy as making a webpage that can fit in a 640x480 window without scrolling :\ I look forward to learning more in part 2. Great opening article!


2   Mark Wyner ~ 03 August 2005 at 02:39 AM

Go, Cameron, go!

Man, I am SO ready for this series. I’ve spent the past year + studying handheld-device web browsing, and consequently have been working hard to find better ways to test my websites on handheld devices. Standards-focused web designers, by default, must add handhelds to their testing suite. And I’m no exception.

Taking on this brute topic is a mountain among mountains, and I commend you for leading the way.


3   Prabhath Sirisena ~ 03 August 2005 at 11:59 PM

Finally, a series that throws light on the dark alleys of mobile design. I’m already hung on Brian’s mobiledesign site…

Look forward to the rest of the articles.


4   Dean Jackson ~ 05 August 2005 at 10:25 AM

Actually, Openwave are part of the W3C Mobile Web Initiative. They are a member of the Best Practices Working Group, which you could consider to be the Mobile Web equivalent to the W3C Accessibility groups. It will develop a set of guidelines for content creators.

Basically, a company doesn’t need to be an MWI sponsor to participate. We have a large number of carriers and manufacturers participating including Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Openwave, Vodafone, DoCoMo, Opera, AT&T, T-Online, AOL and France Telecom. That’s a pretty big chunk of the market, and they are all interested in solving the problems you mention (a mobile Web that doesn’t suck!)

Also, the XHTML Mobile Profile from OMA is almost indentical to XHTML Basic. We’re hoping it is possible to coverge the two specifications.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Dean Jackson - W3C


5   Cameron Moll ~ 05 August 2005 at 11:42 AM

Wow, excellent clarification, Dean. Straight from the source, no less. And I agree — I don’t see any reason why XHTML-MP and XHTML Basic couldn’t converge and be one the same.


6   Brian Egan ~ 05 August 2005 at 12:03 PM

One upcoming technology I’m excited about is the new version of Flash, which should be coming out in the next few weeks. Flash on mobile devices is becoming huge in areas such as Japan and Korea, and word has it that Flash Pro 8 is supposed to cater directly to mobile development.

Although this cannot replace XHTML/CSS support in mobile browsers, it could provide a real alternative while these companies come together to develop and execute a solid, forward-thinking roadmap.

Will you be covering Flash in the upcoming articles? Have you heard much about the new Flash Pro? Are others in the field as excited as I am about this technology?

I gotta give you props, Cameron. This series is gonna be one of the most interesting I’ve seen in a while. Work like this is exactly why your blog is one of my favorites. Take care.


7   ergobob ~ 06 August 2005 at 10:00 AM

In the next installment, I hope you show or link to examples of a moble web page. I want to see what this looks like and how difficult it will be to develop.

Also, I noticed that the RSS Feed from blogger.com strips images and will collapse into a very small screen. Is that an option for a mobile display?

Bob


8   William Stewart ~ 08 August 2005 at 08:37 AM

Thanks for the great article. It’s about time we designers get serious about publishing for phones. As a Treo 650 user, I spend serious time online and will spend more when sites get mobile-friendly.


9   goodwitch ~ 10 August 2005 at 03:53 PM

I find designing for PDAs to be a real kick in the pants. My recent work on handheld museum guides designed in Flash for PPC couldn’t have been more fun. But, we did control the hardware, making the task at hand 100% easier.

Now as my university is publishing more content intended for a mobile audience, I have high hopes that Web Standards will prevail. My optimism kicked in and I’m thinkin’, the mobile carriers are going to adore web standards because it makes all of us content producers more effecient and effective at getting delicious mobile content out there. (fingers crossed)


10   Jonathan Grubb ~ 21 August 2005 at 11:28 PM

Nice intro Cameron. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

In response to Ergobob’s request above, I’d humbly suggest starting with one of the bigger and older XHTML sites, http://wap.oa.yahoo.com. The Movies section reflects some of the more recent mobile design thinking at Yahoo.

For more examples check out the directory at 4info: http://wap.4info.net/listCategory.do


11   Oskar ~ 16 September 2005 at 04:57 PM

Interesting series, being involved in designing for mobile devices myself (Netherlands and UK) I really knows what Josh means when he talks about the current state of mobile browser support and standards.

Also interesting are other device limitations, for example some devices don`t support pages larger then 10KB (some imode phones, even new models), should you support legacy devices that only handle WML etc.

Other issues are the different resolutions used, which might cause trouble with images. Some devices scale images, others will show a horizontal scollbar and others will just leave part of the image outside the viewable area.

etc. etc.




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