Stop with the hacks, mobile users don't browse.

by Timothy Appnel

While I admire Opera Software's work and persistence in advancing browser design, I can't help but roll my eyes reading their recent announcement. Opera has developed a mobile browsing technology that has, as Paul Festa reports, "finally solved the long-standing problem of reading big, bulky Web pages on tiny cell phone screens, posing a potential threat to both WAP and to Microsoft."

Mobile users don't browse like they do from their desks, so let's stop trying to repurpose content designed for the Web.

WAP has failed for a host of reasons including the inherent security hole of the WAP gateway architecture, initial deployment on circuit-switched networks as opposed to always-on packet-switched data networks, and a lack of well-designed and useful applications. Even once addressed, browsing would still have its issues and limitations in the mobile arena. Mobile users are "on the go" and generally not in environments where they have the time or patience to navigate content as they would seated at their desks. Their environment requires useful content and applications to be location-based, time sensitive and concise. In addition, utilizing an architecture where nearly all the data and logic resides on a remote server is a poor fit with the reality of unreliable and low bandwidth connections. It frustrates users and erodes their confidence.

Besides, WAP and more specifically WML (WAP's markup display language) is becoming more symbiotic with the Web. WML2 is an extension of XHTML that utilizes a mobile specific profile. (In his CNET article, Fiesta incorrectly compares WAP and HTML that is apples and oranges. WAP and Web Architecture or WML and HTML would have been more appropriate.)

I've always been skeptical when it comes to these attempts to repurpose web content on a mobile device as Opera's proposal or existing implementations such as Danger's HipTop browser. I've never seen them succeed at anything but frustrating users.

Web pages are designed for large high-resolution color displays, the use of keyboard and mouse and a reliable and relatively high bandwidth connection. Being a display language HTML is not terribly efficient or reliable for consumption by another application. "Qualified guessing" will yield the equivalent of a Frankenstein monster. It's a hack at best.

Yes, if designed properly a Web page will scale gracefully and adapt to different displays and resolutions -- IF is the operative word though. Like eating your vegetables, most of know we should do it, but don't. Face it, web sites do some rather freaky things with HTML. You don't have to go past the world's most prominent software company's site to witness that.

Despite my criticisms in this area, I still believe in the promise of mobile computing. Mobile data devices will eventually surpass the number of desktops. They're more affordable and the constraints of these devices insist on a simplicity that will assist the mass-market in embracing interactive services.

Repurposing Web content for mobile is not the answer, it's a hack. Studying mobile users' needs and tendencies, getting content into easily consumable formats and developing more usable and appropriate mobile applications are the real answers.

What do you think is the answer to mobile computing design?


2002-10-17 19:21:05
Repurposing quite doable
If you just want to take existing HTML and chuck into cell phones, sure, it's a bad idea, maybe even a terrible idea.

If you have content that you've structured in advance so that users can navigate easily among small pieces, then it may be perfectly fine to put it in a cell phone.

Thinking the same content through multiple media and then implementing its distribution isn't easy, but giving up completely at this point doesn't seem wise. It sounds kind of like you're disappointed at the early days of television when they were trying to repurpose radio shows for TV and couldn't figure out why it didn't go over well.

While mobile users aren't interested in browsing the traditional Web over low bandwidth and tiny screens, they may find other aspects - RSS channels, for instance - perfectly useful for finding their way around.

Opera certainly doesn't have a sure winner, but it doesn't have a sure loser either.

2002-10-19 12:50:10
Doable and reality aren't always the same.
I think we are more like minded that it may seem.

If you where to have structured your content properly as you suggest and I concur with, you can repurpose content for mobile quite readily. It's been my experience that most do not and really don't know how. Having been involved in one of the larger WAP portal developments in its day, I know there was an incredible amount of trial and error to figure all of this out.

At that this point though, WAP browsers work quite well, so why do we need Opera's solution or the HipTop browser or a mobile version of IE? there are some quite functional WAP browsers on the market. Their implementation on phones is a different matter.

I think as mobile networks and the "WAP platform" matures, that there will be good reason to deploy mobile browser solutions. I don't think they will be a prevalent as they are on the "wired" Web.

I completely agree with RSS feeds. (This of course assumes that you have a quality well-formed RSS feed to work with.) One of my more recent O'Reilly weblog posts touched on the use of RSS feeds in a mobile app --