Mobile Web Design: State of the Mobile Web
~ 02 August 2005 ~
“Mobile Web Design”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 AuthorsCameron 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.
Stock photography, type, and killer tees. Genuinely recommended by Authentic Boredom.
Authentic Boredom is the platitudinous web home of Cameron Moll, freelance new media designer, author, and speaker. More…
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