Mobile Internet

June 14th, 2005 Comments Off on Mobile Internet

My recent experiments with the mobile Web gave me a new understanding of how far we still are from really supporting mobile users. Excepting a few sites specifically designed for the small and limited screen of handhels and cell phones, most sites don’t offer any support at all for mobile devices.

The screens in my cell phone (176×208) and in my handheld (320×320) are reasonably large for such devices. Using them, it is possible to browse most sites I want to,but sometimes at the cost of many frustating minutes.Not because the sites don’t render well (Opera, my preferred mobile browser, does a very good job of converting most sites to a layout better suited for mobiel devices), but because of additional complexities relating to usability and accessibility.

A couple sites — for example, Bloglines and Google Search — are available in special versions specifically suited for mobile devices. But even those sites sin by trying to keep their mobile versions as close as possible to their normal versions.

Google Search’s result screen, for example, is nearly identical in both versions. I’d rather have more context and fewer links in each page because that would save me both money and time allowing me to choose the right result quicker.

Bloglines’s mobile version is very good, but fails slightly by keeping a huge image in each page and by forgetting to optimize the feed page, which sometimes can be really huge. Considering that some phone companies charge for the KB, the cost of access can grow quickly.

Other sites,. like Fictionwise, which I use a lot, are virtually unusable on mobile devices — which, in Fictionwise’s case, is ironic, considering mobile users are their primary public.Fictionwise’s homepage is over 100KB even without loading its related images. Were the site designed for mobile devices, it would be possible to buy and download e-books directly to the Palm or cell phone, without having to use the PC as a middleman.

Ironically, many blogs look good on mobile devices, thanks to the proliferation of Blogger- and MovableType-based layouts, which are commonly done in XHTML and CSS, degrading gracefully in most situations.

Another problem I see in the mobile Web is the indiscriminate use of Ajax techniques. The two browsers I use the most in my mobile devices support JavaScript well, but their speed is nowhere close to desktop browsers . Also, their support for dynamic changes in the pages is much more limited. And since most of the interaction with the page should be done via a keypad, other challenges arise as well.

The graceful degradation of JavaScript and images in something every mobile developer should consider. The normal Bloglines site, for example, fails silently in the absence of JavaScript. Users are left with a blank screen wondering what happened to all their feeds. In the absence of proper degradation, some sites tend to provide frustrating usability.

That was my experience so far. In short, it’s perfectly possible to browse the Web through mobile devices, but that the experience is still very far from that supplied by a desktop browser.

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