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Summary:

It’s time developers stop viewing mobile as an afterthought and start building mobile apps for less robust wireless connections and a variety of platforms. Programmers should stop trying to force design principals and habits learned on the PC-focused wired web into a mobile world.

For a while the consensus has been that the mobile web is the same as the PC web, in that a person should be able to access whatever content they can via a wired PC connection on their phone, without suffering through WAP browsers or limits. I disagree. The mobile web is still different than the wired web, and it’s far more important.

Which means that developers shouldn’t only think of the web in terms of a wired connection for a PC. Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt said it best when he discussed the future of the mobile web during his speech at the Mobile World Congress today.

http://www.businesswire.com/flash/flvplayer.swf

In essence, Schmidt was saying that in many ways, your smartphone is about to supplant your computer — with huge implications for content providers and operators. For while PCs are about content creation (blogging, graphic design, etc.), and both current-generation smartphones and future devices like the iPad about content consumption, tomorrow’s smartphones — or superphones — will be about both, and may even do both equally well.

So those developing applications with an eye toward consumption on personal computers over wired connections should stop thinking about mobile as an addendum to the web-based project and start thinking of it as a separate application in its own right. Note how your application uses data and how it will perform on relatively slower mobile networks. Good navigation is essential. Consider how your application (or web page) deals with connection errors and how it delivers data over a thin pipe, as Elizabeth Churchill, a principal research scientist and manager of the Internet Experiences Group at Yahoo, describes in the video below from a GigaOM event last October. The mobile section is about five and half minutes in, and hits on some really good design tips.

Other than the difference in the speed and stability of the connection, developers will also need to think about the platform. Will the content or applications be used on an iPad, a phone, inside a moving car? If everything has a connection, and multiple operating systems such as Android or the newly launched MeeGo are the framework for a variety of end devices, then the mobile web isn’t a singular experience, or screen, anymore.

For example. there’s no reason that my connected car has to offer the Internet in a web-biased format. Navigation in a car shouldn’t be mouse-based; it should be voice-based. Viewed through such a lens, it becomes clear that mobile connectivity sets developers free — free to play with different user interfaces, site navigation and experiences that will make surfing the mobile web a background activity in service of the user, rather than the primary one designed strictly to entertain.

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  1. Hey Stacey,

    Another awesome article and I really think you’ve hit the nail on the head with regards to mobile usability and user engagement. I loved your interview – nice work.

    This issue reminds me of an article I wrote a few years ago on GigaOm: http://gigaom.com/2008/03/26/what-makes-a-good-mobile-application-great/

    Nowadays, I’m doing some with with a company trying to help that is trying to help with one aspect of frustration on mobile devices called Taptu. Taptu is a mobile search engine that is now focused on delivering quality search results that are tailored for mobile devices. Also, now the focus is on touch friendly content including App Store items, video, real-time search results and other assets for touch devices such as iPhone/Android/Palm/Nokia and the like.

    We look forward to exploring mobile usability and how the issues can be stomped out.

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  2. I agree with this completely. I also think that websites should make their mobile version of their site top notch and mobile friendly before working on platform apps so while they make these apps people can access these mobile optimized sites or if a user doesn’t want to download the full app and just wants to look at it once a while or just once.

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  3. I agree with the meta point that the PC will not be the only or main portal to Internet content. But to be fair, there aren’t multiple webs, just multiple ways to experience web-based media, information and content properties. The Internet will reach consumers in new environments and through multiple access points – your car, your television – and the term “mobile web” will not be comprehensive enough. Ubiquitous Internet access will require creative thinkers to re-invent engagement models, but it does not mean there are multiple webs.

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  4. [...] Stacey Higginbotham on GigaOm tells how “mobile connectivity sets developers free” –  Stop Cramming the Mobile Web Into the PC Box Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Small talk with a web designerCreative Web [...]

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  5. The real problem is that web servers don’t know what the device capabilities are. This leads to trying to do all things and hence the cramming. The solution is to extend web services to mobile and optimize them in real time based off the context of the connecting device. Check out 5o9inc dot com. They’ve solved the problem.

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  6. Stacey – great article, and I agree with the other comments. I get pretty frustrated with the mobile web experience because companies do not realize that when I am mobile, I am looking for specific information, not browsing and surfing, which a desktop site is built for.

    The problem is managing all of these different desktop and mobile environments without having to create separate content and sites for each. Most businesses, especially small ones, do not have the time and resources to manage their desktop website, let alone multiple web presences.

    People need to create one online presence that contains all of their content, and then treat each environment as a viewing portal. The trick is getting each of the environments to grab the right content, display it properly, and provide the experience the user wants for that environment.

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  7. Awesome post, and it basically reiterates something I posted about a while back that really ruffled some feathers http://www.rickycadden.com/2009/04/consumers-dont-want-to-browse-desktop-website-on-their-phones/

    It’s my belief that, despite current marketing, consumers DON’T want to browse the ‘desktop web’ on their phones, they just want access to the same content, but formatted specifically for their phone.

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  8. [...] results quickly over a mobile connection and on a small screen. I discussed this problem with Elizabeth Churchill, principal research scientist and manager of the Internet Experiences Group at Y…, and she emphasized that tailored recommendations are important for mobile users not only because [...]

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