What Works (And What Doesn’t) on the Mobile Web
When considering the future of the open web on mobile devices, it’s easy to see that the desktop’s days as top dog are numbered.
Nielsen Mobile, one of the many companies that pays close attention to such things, recently reported unique mobile internet usage has grown 73% since 2006 (PDF). And according to the blog ReadWriteWeb, mobile ad tracking service AdMob claims mobile web use has doubled in the last year.
Looking back, people may be able to pinpoint Internet Explorer on Windows CE as the introduction to the wireless internet on mobile phones. Opera argues its mobile browser played a large part as well. True as that may be, the release of the Safari browser on the iPhone was the tipping point towards truly closing the gap between the web experience on mobiles and on the desktop. Tech research firm ABI Research’s latest report predicts continuing, accelerating growth of real, full-featured browsers on mobiles. The lines are being blurred more quickly than ever.
When the iPhone was first released in 2007, the perception of mobile phones was that they existed as just another calculator-type tool, something you used to make phone calls, send text messages and maybe check a few movie times or sports scores. The iPhone introduced the idea of the phone being not just a tool and more like the desktop computer — maybe even something that can compete with it.
The mobile web doesn’t just enhance the desktop experience, it has become its own experience beyond the desktop. We can call up GPS-enabled maps, interact in forums and run web searches on Google, all from our phones. In fact, the ultimate goal is probably to not have a mobile web at all, but have devices that can use the normal web and happen to fit your pocket. They might even make phone calls too.
But given all the things we can do with today’s tiny screens, there are several things the mobile web isn’t, and perhaps never will be, very good at.
Where the mobile web wins
Quick Reference. The mobile web can settle bar bets in a flash. Want to know who the lead singer of Iron Maiden was in the years 1978 to 1981? Use wapedia.mobi, a mobile-optimized version of Wikipedia. And never mind the score of the game, you want to know Phillies’ slugger Chase Utley’s current batting average. ESPN has a website. Of course, these are trivial examples, but it’s easy to see how this advantage extends into other real-world scenarios.
E-mail. Every smartphone operating system has a built-in e-mail application or the capability to view your inbox in a browser. For the most part, these applications work just fine for short e-mails. The convenience here is obvious.
Voicemail. The iPhone introduced the world to visible voicemail — See a list of your voicemails and listen to them in any order you want, pausing and replaying the messages on demand. Now the bar has been set, and the lack of this feature makes every other phone look bad. But other services available via the mobile web provide this convenience, too. Most notably, Grand Central has this capability, plus many more features to control your incoming and outgoing calls.
Address Book. Quick: what’s your spouse’s number? Your best friend’s? Most of us can’t remember the last time we had to memorize a phone number. Our contact lists do the work for us. Those lists are stored online, synced with our desktops, accessible anywhere.
Geography. Getting lost isn’t an issue anymore. For those with access to the internet and a Google Maps-equipped mobile device, the software has revolutionized how we get directions and access your neighborhood and the world.
Access. While only a fraction of people worldwide can afford broadband internet access on desktop computers, many more fall under the huge shadow of cell phone towers. Cell phone devices are cheap and plentiful compared to their desktop counterparts. It seems likely that the people the OLPC project is trying to reach will see HTML through a cell phone screen first, rather than a laptop.
Where the mobile web loses
Getting work done. The iPhone made great efforts to support portable documents, something Windows Mobile has had with its mobile Office suite for years. However, the practicality of building presentations on your iPhone or composing a novel on your Nokia is questionable. The small devices are still too unwieldy and slow for anything but short-form writing. How far do you think Leo Tolstoy would have progressed writing “War and Peace” on a sidekick before strangling himself with his own thumbs?
Windows Live, Google Docs and Zoho make your documents more accessible, even going so far as to format them for your phone. This is fine and totally practical if you’re looking up recipes or similar short blurbs of information. But reading a full-length document drains batteries like crazy, and the achingly small fonts will make your eyes water under the strain.
Magazines and Newspapers. Long documents on tiny screens require keeping one finger (or stylus) at the ready at all times. Keeping up with the speed of your reading means a lot of interaction with the phone. Meanwhile, the phone’s backlit screen is sucking batteries and rendering pages. You’ll be lucky to spend a couple of hours in Google Reader before you start seeing low battery alerts. Meanwhile, you’re reading on the go — you’re inattentive and you’re giving yourself a migraine by concentrating on small text. Services like Instapaper are making strides by serving up mobile-friendly pages, but that’s still a stepping stone.
Photos. You can capture a moment with your cell phone, but it is unlikely you’ll get any results worthy of mounting on the wall. The iPhone makes posting photos to Flickr or a WordPress blog directly from your phone a snap, but the 2.0 megapixel camera produces the digital equivalent of a Polaroid from yesteryear. There are cameras the same size as the iPhone capable of grabbing shots at 10 megapixels or more, and those cameras still need to be hooked up to a real computer to post to the web.
State of mobile devices
iPhone. The iPhone’s App Store can be considered a huge success (hiccups and all) and we’ve seen plenty of applications emerge that push the mobile phone to new limits. What’s more, iPhone applications have proved to be a profitable undertaking for software developers. Development for the iPhone has only just begun. We’re very excited to see what Apple has wrought: the next generation of the mobile web.
Android. Despite it being more or less vaporware, we’re still excited for Android, Google’s open-source mobile operating system. The search giant has in fact been preparing for the mobile web for a long time — most of Google’s properties are available in a mobile-optimized format already, including Gmail, Google Reader and Google Docs. We’ve already seen how much of a hit Google Maps has become on mobiles, and we’re curious to see how disruptive the telephony service Grand Central will be once its launches wide. Furthermore, Android already has 1700 applications submitted via its Android Developer Challenge. To put that in perspective, Apple’s iPhone started with 500 applications when the App Store was launched. If volume is any indication of success, the future lies with Android.
Nokia. With all the attention on the iPhone, it is easy to forget that Nokia leads in market share — almost 40% of mobile phones used worldwide are Nokia phones. Despite its distribution, there’s not much threatening about Nokia’s Symbian OS beyond the fact that it’s stable and it works. Of course, this will change when Nokia opens its source code up to developers. The question is, can Nokia build a developer community around an open-source mobile OS to rival the critical mass surrounding offerings from Google and Apple? If it can, Nokia could win. But for now, it’s the dark horse.
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