It’s becoming a mobile-first world

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In the last day, I’ve gotten two notes from start-ups that began on the web but have seen their businesses transformed by mobile, as users increasingly shift their consumption to mobile apps and browsers. This might seem obvious in a world in which services like Twitter and Pandora now get most of their traffic from mobile. But it bears highlighting because the trend is happening across all sorts of apps and websites and that has implications for developers, publishers and businesses, who must now consider what a mobile-first world looks like.

The latest examples came to me from online design store Fab.com, which just launched in June and then pushed out its first mobile apps for iOS and Android in October. In just three months, it said that 30 percent of its traffic is now on mobile. MyYearbook, a social networking site that was bought by Quepasa last year, said, thanks to a big holiday push, it now has 54 percent of its traffic coming in on mobile.

Now, these are just two examples, but it shows that though they both got their start on the web, they’re increasingly running mobile services. Twitter’s mobile traffic is up to 55 percent while Pandora is up to 60 percent according to Mary Meeker, of Kleiner Perkins. That’s happening quickly with Facebook as well, which has 350 million of its 800 million users actively accessing the social network through mobile channels.

Meeker highlighted this at the Web 2.0 summit in October, showing how mobile search, payments and shopping has taken off in the last two years. Online shopping destinations like eBay are seeing more and more sales via mobile devices. IBM said that 18.3 percent of all online sessions on retailers’ sites on Christmas were initiated from a mobile device, compared to 8.4 percent in 2010.

Meanwhile, Google is increasingly capitalizing on the growth of mobile searches by encouraging businesses to think mobile first. It has said that 44 percent of last minute holiday shopping searches was expected to be by mobile and 79 percent of smartphone users currently utilize their phones to help with price comparison, product searches and locating a retailer.

The fact is, thanks to smartphones and tablets, the way people are going to services and destinations is changing. People are accessing stuff all the time on the go and that requires developers and publishers to think mobile first.

Om Malik touched on this last month when he talked about the redesign of his personal website Om.co. Here’s what he wrote:

When mulling over these changes, I began to wonder how a blog designed primarily for a mobile-first experience might fare. Of course, there would be a web-based version, too, but it would be not the primary focus. Mobile first meant — a great reading experience that allows readers to focus on things that matter — words, photos and videos — not the design flourishes and other elements such as social sharing icons.

Mobile first meant that the layouts would adapt themselves to the display. The iPad version would adapt to that device’s screen size while the iPhone/smartphone version would be even more barebones. The beauty of thinking about “mobile first” is that you get to use the latest in browsers, forget about backward compatibility and at the sometime are able to deploy newest technologies and hacks.

This is increasingly how publishers and developers need to prepare their services. There is still an obvious need for a traditional website but the shifting habits of consumption mean you can’t make mobile an afterthought. People notice if you’re not optimizing for mobile and ignoring mobile users and their experiences can cost publishers. Google quoted a study last year that found that 61 percent of mobile users won’t return to a site if they have trouble accessing it from their phone.

It also means you can’t just water down a site or gin up a simple app. It still needs to have robust functionality because people want to do a lot of things on mobile. And they look to developers to also leverage the unique capabilities of devices, which are location aware and have cameras and other sensors. Some developers may want to think twice about how they implement some web-only features if it can’t be enjoyed by mobile users.

We’re already seeing more mobile apps and start-ups that are beginning on mobile and then looking toward online. But there’s still a ways to go for traditional websites, businesses and services to embrace mobile. With smartphone penetration expected to cross over 50 percent soon in the U.S. and adoption unlikely to slow down, it’s going to mean people going online through the small screen. Those who prepare for a mobile first world are going have the jump when it comes to attracting those consumers.

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