Mobile Web Frustration Elation?

23 Sep 2010
Posted by adrianb

What gives?

Some of you might recall how a few years ago, an announcement was made about a new domain dedicated to websites optimised for use by mobile devices. The domain was .mobi, and although since that time few appear to have jumped on to the .mobi bandwagon, since then there hasn't been any all encompassing solution to the problems mobile device users still face in accessing their favourite web sites.
The fact there is still not any commonly accepted approach to making web page content available to mobile browsers is largely down to two main factors. First, the lack of a widely accepted mobile browser: the plethora of browsers in use means that it website designers can only hope to make access from a mobile device a good experience for a small proportion of users. Secondly, there is no commonly used standard for delivering web page content in a mobile accessible form. I know about the W3C Mobile Web Initiative (http://www.w3.org/Mobile/) but just check and see how many sites look anything like approaching compliance.
Nokia have probably have sold the most mobile devices in use today, but until very recently have offered browsers (of which there have been many different varieties) that have coped poorly with many main stream websites.
Aside from newby Apple, the other big mobile manufacturers are in much the same position, having used a hotchpotch of in-house and third party solutions over the years. The big websites have not helped matters either, seeming to be more interested in either differentiating their offerings from their competitors or concentrating on internal issues like cost of operation and content licensing management . So ease of use for the burgeoning numbers of MMA's - "Mostly Mobile Access" - has largely been left behind.

iPhone
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Forgive my bias in devoting so much of this blog to iPhone, but it's what I use most right now. Out of all the mobile web users, iPhone owners at first sight seem to be fairing best, with a relatively large, great quality touch screen and a decent browser. What stops the iPhone being a truly useful web browsing platform is that it ships with at least one serious, major shortcoming. Despite the fuss made about Flash on iPhone, the big downside of iPhone in practice is not the lack of Flash, rather that the much more commonly used *Java/Javascript is not supported.
This affects those many mobile web users who are trying to do really useful, practical things. With the most very basic and essential website functions like forms largely reliant on Java, they are usually unavailable from iPhone.

Apple have got a sort of work around for this big problem, and that is Apps. Because web sites have been prevented from letting iPhone users access the most basic of functionality on their websitesss, they have turned to Apps as a work around, and Apple are happy to welcome them to the fold of iPhone App providers. So if you want to make your business easily accessible to the army of mostly cash rich iPhone users, you have to build them an App. The fact that Apps are also currently seen as a bit trendy and the latest boardroom tech "must have" (oldies will recall some similarities here to the early days of the web) is largely driving the recent rampant growth in Apps.
But the although the tight policing of apps and the delivery by Apple has benefited users by making most apps highly reliable and unlikely to break in use, many resent the all powerful Apple take-it-or-leave-it control that has to be agreed to.

Nokia
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Once unarguable King of the Mobile Device MFRs, instead of focussing on a small number of killer devices, Nokia have stuck to their "buttergun" approach: ie just keep churning out lots more different devices by the dozen and hope one succeeds. The early efforts were very clunky, even if very functional compared to the competition at the time, but more recent devices have been much more usable, although they still don't cut-it in the trendy stakes. Attracted by the success of Apps on the iPhone, Nokia is trying very hard to push their long running Ovi store, with only very limited success up to now. This is largely down to Nokia having made Ovi hard enough to start to use to put all but the most dedicated mobile users off before they even get their first app. A great big plus for Nokia is that they have supported Java on much their kit for a long time, and are now trying to get one up on Apple by letting Flash on board as well (granted only a cut down version to reduce the chance of Flash instantly killing zillions of devices - why does Flash have to be available?). Another big plus is that they are putting very functional devices out at a third the cost of the iPhone. I reckon people will get the message soon, put up with the "untrendyness", get what they can afford and suffer the pain of learning how to use them.

Blackberry
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From a slow start Blackberry are trotting down the same path as iPhone with Blackberry apps. Blackberry have also done the right thing in supporting Javascript. Having a big chunk of the corporate market is not the great advantage it once was however, so they can't rest on their laurels like Nokia once did. Still, they can keep their foot in the consumer door via the corporate one, as most many Blackberry users seem to have another, personal phone, and what better "in" than to have your prospective customers already using your products for work.

LG, Samsung and the rest
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Well I don't know much about these, except that they probably suffer from many of the same issues - a clunky browser with lots of shortcomings.

Android
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Just to mix things up even more, Google have thrown Android into the mix. A mobile operating system rather than a phone (they only released one Google branded device and that is supposed to be the last), this has been pitched as a lightweight, slick and fast OS, easy to develop for. Big selling points for mobile device manufacturers is that Google / Android is pitched as no threat to the device manufacturers, comes with a huge R&D push determined to make it work. Google also are not going heavy on controlling apps, allowing installation from external devices (that's memory cards,or via your desktop PC etc) and so there little of the scary big brother baggage that comes with having Steve Jobs in control of your App.

.mobi
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So, what gives with .mobi then? Well the guys pushing the domain are still trying their best to sell the advantages of a dedicated mobile domain with standards control. Drop over to http://mobiforge.com/starting/blog/meet-gomobi-a-new-content-mobilizatio... to have a shufty. I wouldn't want to rate their chances of success, but reckon it's well worth investigating, especially given the mess that is mobile device web page access and usability.