Learning to adapt to the mobile web

Getting online once involved sitting at a (wired) desktop PC wielding a mouse and keyboard, but smartphones are soon set to outstrip computers as our gateways to the web.

Learning to adapt to the mobile web

All web designers need to think long and hard about what that means for their future. I’ve no doubt that some old hands will be saying they’ve heard all this before: ten years ago, similar revolutionary rumblings were issued about a mobile web based on wireless application protocol (WAP), but the reality turned out to be a smattering of dull, text-only gobbets of information. WAP proved bitterly disappointing to both consumers and producers.

The difference this time around is that the limitations that hobbled WAP have almost entirely gone away. Fast 3G and Wi-Fi connections, smartphones combined with powerful CPUs and state-of-the-art HTML5 browsers remove the need for compromise – no more cut-down sites and cut-down pages written in cut-down HTML and viewed in a cut-down browser. Smartphones now really do offer the “web in your hands”.

The snag is that one restriction didn’t go away: the cut-down screen size

So why should designers worry, when their sites are already smartphone-compatible? Surely the mobile web is just the old desktop web? Isn’t that why WAP failed and smartphones succeeded? Users want the real thing, one web.

Screen size

The snag is that one restriction didn’t go away: the cut-down screen size. I’m not talking about resolution, since modern smartphones offer plenty of pixels; it’s absolute physical size that’s the problem.

A desktop web page might look fine on a tiny smartphone screen, until you try to actually read it, which requires continual (and infuriating) zooming and panning – so-called “zoom hell”. Navigating around a desktop-sized page via a smartphone-sized window just doesn’t cut it as our long-term way of personal web browsing.

It was for precisely this reason that Apple created the iPad, essentially by grafting a larger physical display onto its iPhone platform, which enables users to read full-screen pages without zooming.

The tablet form factor Apple created isn’t merely here to stay, but – with Google/Android, Amazon/Kindle and eventually Microsoft/Windows 8 joining the party – is set for explosive growth. Revolutionary although it is, the tablet solves the mobile browsing problem in limited contexts only – essentially the home, perhaps stretching to occasional trips and commutes.

While web designers certainly need to get to grips with the tablet form factor, this isn’t a substitute for addressing the tougher problem of truly pocket-sized devices, which are increasingly multipurpose smartphone/camera/satnav/recorders capable of playing music, games, apps, videos and the web. Small screens aren’t going away, they’re going to be ubiquitous, and designers must provide web content tailored specifically for them.

BBC mobile site

Sure enough, this is exactly what’s happening now: visit www.bbc.co.uk/mobile on your smartphone, or try out the mobile emulator at www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/web on your desktop browser, to see just what can be achieved. The difference from the bad old days of WAP are striking. Pages aren’t confined by WAP’s typical 1KB page limit – so while graphics are small, there are plenty of them, and clicking on a headline takes you to the full story.

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