What's wrong with the mobile web? Quite a lot. Over the next few posts, I'll discuss issues from a variety of industry player perspectives - including the W3C. First, of course, we address users and user needs.There are two main camps in the mobile web:
- One Web. The Internet is the Internet, and sites should run well on all devices. Optimization should be based on CSS and device detection, but should not change site function or content beyond the necessary.
- Mobile Web. The mobile is a different platform with different capabilities and different user needs. Sites should be optimized for mobile in many (but not all) cases.
One Web advocates talk about use of standard technologies and the growing number of people who use, or will use, their mobile phone as their sole web access. We should listen to these core concerns.
Mobile Web advocates talk about differing user needs, connectivity costs, and device capabilities. We should listen to these core concerns.
One Web advocates riposte with the assertion that the Mobile Web concerns are temporary: connectivity and device capabilities will improve, and if the mobile is the primary access to the web, than the users need everything that a desktop site needs.
It's not that simple. Imagine, if you will, a world in which users of personal communications devices are attempting to do all the work with web sites that desktop users do now. Further imagine that the devices have twice the battery life, high speed downloads, and plenty of processor power and memory. In short, imagine the world that the One Web advocates believe to be the future.
A personal communications device (a category that includes mobile phones, Sidekicks, BlackBerries, and future devices) is strongly controlled by The Carry Principle. In particular, a small device strongly implies a single window interface.
Okay, so what about the users? Users need a way to manage several information sources simultaneously, both within sites and between sites.
Desktop applications and web sites have since the 1980's been designed assuming multiple windows. If you want to get information from another application, just open it. Browsers can have multiple windows open. This is particularly important in our current world of online applications: I can have my email window open, my business networking site open to research somebody in my email, and my calendar open - all in separate windows. Mobile phones do not support this cross-site fertilization. Instead, only one "window" can be viewed at a time.
For "one web" can become a reality, browsers must become adept at handling multiple tasks. This, by itself, is inadequate. High-end phones (variously called "smart phones" and "PDA phones", usually with an operating system like Symbian, Windows, or Palm) have rudimentary multi-tasking - but on an application level. Multiple browser tasks must become easy; switching between pages must become easy; split-window viewing must become possible.
Browsers must become adept at handling multiple simultaneous tasks in the same way that messaging applications are adept at handling multiple conversation threads, except that users will want the information either simultaneously or with rapid switching. The browser will have to be re-engineered, from the ground up, to truly embrace the mobile environment rather than being a miniature desktop browser.
I am not confident that all of this will become possible. I am firmly in the "Mobile Web" camp, in which mobile browsing of the future will be based on "mashups", RSS feeds, and mobile web sites with full access behind it. Mobile Gmail, for example, allows an optimized experience while giving me the control to view all my content with a few extra steps.
Even in this future, the browser has to be re-engineered. Mashups should be buildable on the fly. Voice and camera input should be built in. And a whole mishmash of usability improvements need to be made.
Next topic: what browsers need to do - today - to support mobile users