Learning to adapt to the mobile web

More important still, designers aren’t restricted to wireless markup language (WML) or XHTML MP (Mobile Profile) as they were with WAP; modern smartphones provide advanced HTML5 browsers with CSS3 and JavaScript support, permitting rich designs containing app-style live media, interactivity and programmability that desktop-orientated designers who still target IE6 can only dream of (or else resort to Flash).

Learning to adapt to the mobile web

There’s only one way in which the modern mobile web resembles WAP, and that’s in the need for an essentially standalone mobile site aimed at smaller screens, running in parallel with a full-sized desktop site.

Does that mean it’s time to buy a .mobi top-level domain (TLD), or else to create a dedicated, mobile subdomain or directory for your existing site? In short, must we all start producing dedicated mobile content and rewriting existing pages for this new smartphone audience?

How not to do it

Before you rush off to do that, remember the lessons of WAP. Do you really want to commit to running two sites instead of one, possibly with two separate versions of every page? Are you really ready to throw scalability and efficiency out of the window? Will it even be appreciated? Do mobile browsers want to be stuck in a cut-down ghetto, or will they pine for the full-sized page? Leaving things as they are and making users put up with a bit of zooming suddenly looks rather attractive.

Mobile users may presently accept zoom hell as a price worth paying, but the inconvenience creates a strong incentive to look for smoother, more mobile-friendly alternatives

Think ahead, though. The emergence of this new global audience, larger even than today’s desktop web, is something that won’t happen often and, as always, early adopters will reap the biggest rewards. The mobile web is both an opportunity and a threat.

Mobile users may presently accept zoom hell as a price worth paying, but the inconvenience creates a strong incentive to look for smoother, more mobile-friendly alternatives – and as more traffic goes mobile, Google will start to exaggerate that trend. So what’s the way forward?

I think the business case for catering to mobile users with small screens is inarguable, but I also think that the apparently obvious solution of producing a separate mobile version of your site is exactly the wrong way to go about it. And I’m not the only one – Tim Berners-Lee himself made this argument back in 2004, when he wrote criticising the introduction of .mobi TLDs.

His argument centres on the importance of avoiding the undesirable duplication of universal resource locators/ identifiers (URLs/URIs):

“The web works by reference… The URI is passed around, written, spoken, buried in links, bookmarked, traded while instant messaging and through email. It’s fundamentally useful to be able to quote the URI for some information and then look up that URI in an entirely different context. For example, I may want to look up a restaurant on my laptop, bookmark it, and then, when I only have my phone, check the bookmark to have a look at the menu.”

At first sight this seems rather trivial: desktop browsers can still read mobile content, it just looks clumsy on a bigger screen.

More than aesthetics

But Berners-Lee is talking about more than aesthetics, convenience and integrated user experience, important although these are – device-independent, universally accessible content is what makes the web what it is, and he went on to spell out the danger:

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