While I do believe we’re closer to using our mobile phones to access the web much like we use our PCs, I still think the finish line is far off. There is simply too much variation in operating systems and end devices.

Another Mobile World Congress, and another week full of promises coming out of the wireless industry that we will find eventually use our mobile phones to access the web much like we use our PCs. While I do believe we’re closer (and some give the iPhone credit for this), I still think the finish line is far off. The cage match du jour, the fight between Linux operating systems offered by Google and the LiMo Foundation, underscores one of the big difficulties of using the mobile phone for a rich Internet experience.

There’s too much variation in operating systems and end devices, which makes it hard for developers to build applications for a mobile phone. Obviously people recognized this when it came to building applications for social networks (see: Open Social), but efforts to build platforms that span mobile phones are nascent.

One problem lies with the hardware, which varies from simple phones that serve mostly to make voice calls to smartphones that have the processing power to handle Office documents or broadcast television. There’s also an interface issue, such as whether it’s a touch screen, a scroll wheel, stylus or keypad.

Seriously, aside from finger cramps, anyone using a keypad to navigate the web is going to get really frustrated really quickly. Designing a browsing experience and services to optimize so much variety general results in designing for the lowest common denominator, or cutting them out entirely, and sticking with the few that have smartphones.

But the big problem is software — there’s too many operating systems to choose from. So the open platform zeitgeist is going mobile. AOL unveiled its open mobile developers platform earlier this week at the World Congress, based on technology assets it acquired from Airmedia, so it won’t be real until this summer. The platform allows a programmer to build applications for up to 150 different handsets using a variety of operating systems, but requires a client on each mobile phone.

Also trying to make the development side easier is Streamezzo, a Parisian startup that has raised $48 million to create its cross-platform software development kit. The kit won’t be available until Feb. 25, and requires a client on the end user’s handset. SFR, France’s second-largest mobile carrier, is running applications built on the Streamezzo SDK. Yahoo has launched a mobile widget development platform as well that went live this week, after being announced at CES in January..

On of the more interesting approaches is being taken by Chicago-based Novarra, an eight-year-old company that is working with carriers including Vodafone, U.S. Cellular and 3 Hong Kong to deliver the web to any phone, even low-end handsets. Novarra offers an appliance for carriers or a service that essentially offloads 80 percent of the data processing associated with downloading a web site to servers run by the carrier or Novarra. This cuts down on the amount of data traveling over the carrier network, and makes load times faster. Content providers such as Yahoo also use it to deliver lighter applications for mobile phones. Novarra powers Yahoo’s oneSearch via mobile.

Novarra’s success at driving data usage among its customers’ end users is exhibited by an increase of between $5 and $15 in ARPU for the carriers deploying the Novarra software. One only needs to look at AT&T’s recent profits, which were driven by wireless growth, to realize that pushing easier access to the Internet for all will drive revenue for carriers. The key is making it as convenient to use the web on a mobile phone as it is to use it from a computer.

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  1. I’m sure the same issues were raised by those who were planning the Internet before its inception. The problems with multiple browsers, operating systems are an analogy to touch screen etc. and mobile softwares. Services which try to solve the problem by having people install their own clients are approaching the problem the best way they can.

    The solution lies in the standardisation of the mobile web, along the same lines of existing standards for the Internet. As you pointed out, it was with the iPhone that people ‘actually’ began to use a mobile phone to surf the web, so it’s evident how new it might be to people. Developers never have any incentive unless they see people flocking towards something. Now that they can, I’m sure companies will make efforts to come out with mobile versions of their applications/services.

    What the mobile operating system makers should do is improve the included browser software (and not rely on third-rate Java based browsers), so that they have a wider tool-set to be able to offer the maximum they can. Safari (on the iPhone) and Opera are good choices at this point. I see majority of the effort lying not with web-application developers, but phone browser programmers.

  2. Dimitrios Matsoulis Friday, February 15, 2008

    Unlike desktop PCs that started before the web, for mobile telephones if we can access the web as we do with conventional computers then it does not matter what the brand or the operating system is. I do not care if my smartphone is from Nokia, Sony-Ericsson or whoever since the web experience is what we are all screaming for.

  3. Stacey,

    I think that you’ve made an excellent observation, one I think reflects the emerging 1st generation of mobile web adoption in North America. Particularly, your assessment likely rings true for thin client applications as opposed to web based services. For the wired internet, many early products were pc based clients – think Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL, and many others. Today the web is strongly represented by the web services model, of which open platforms embody. This said, many of the issues that you correctly highlight will mitigate as the web service model, or “mobile web services” (MWS)model is adopted and deployed.

    Note that the iPhone is the ultimate embodiment of the MWS model, albeit in a closed development environment. This model is a much better model for consumers in that it does not require downloading and knowledge of the cell phone operating system.

  4. Great summary of the very basic problems that plague universal application and services delivery on mobiles!

  5. Why surf the web? Why can’t we just talk to the phone to do this for us. I believe we are still stuck in trying to cram the whole desktop into the phone. I don’t want to surf the web on my mobile, I want to experience the web which is quite different.

  6. Mobile Browsing Gets Better | www.univalleihe.org Friday, February 15, 2008

    [...] Higginbotham over at GigaOm has some thoughts on mobile browsing and concludes that the mobile web browsing experience is still not great but it [...]

  7. Great post Article. It’s good to see people are finally starting to pay attention to Mobile Web content.

    For too long it’s been an ‘also ran’ repurposing of desktop content that content providers threw up at the last minute without even bothering to monitor traffic (didn’t matter most of the time as the content was static and unchanging anyway).

    I’ve said for a long time, if someone visits your mobile site and you dont have any analytics and dont know anything about them or their visit…..does it count (as a homage to the saying “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear”).

    If you run a mobile web site check out Amethon’s Mobile Analytics from http://www.Amethon.com

    One of the worlds first analytics applications specifically built for mobile browsers.
    With no page tagging, artifacts or javascript we offer a real time analytics solution with no overhead or lag.

    You can finally see what your mobile web visitors are trying to tell you about your mobile content…….good or otherwise. At least then you will be able to move forward offering dynamic mobile web content that interests your visitors – or is ‘thumb’ fatigue a bigger issue than WAP content providers think.

    Dean Collins

  8. kurukshetra-wallah Friday, February 15, 2008

    The assumptions that mobile-web = PC-web or mobile data device = PC are flawed and excessively US-centric. The analysis, in turn, suffers from these flaws though consistent with its own logic.

  9. Even the mobile JVM, which was supposed to solve this mess (J2ME), is fraught with incompatibilities across platforms.

  10. Jesse Kopelman Friday, February 15, 2008

    The big problem is not really software, especially OS. After all, browser as OS is a perfectly good solution for a device that will always be underpowered compared to a desktop (thanks to battery dictated power constraints). The big problem is user interface hardware. We’re a long way from some sort of usable minimum resolution on the handheld being as ubiquitous as 1024X768 is on the desktop. Even after everyone is at 320X240 or (hopefully) better, what about input method. Not everyones got a touchscreen. Not everyones got a keyboard. Meanwhile, are any of these things part of the proper paradigm for the mobile web? Realistically, we are 10 years behind the desktop, when it comes to the mobile web. There is enough potential for profit, that I’ve no doubt the breakthroughs will come. The only question is when. Linux on the mobile is a great thing, as it gives the best playing field for wisdom of the nets to be brought to bear on these problems.

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