Image by pollyalida via Flickr
If you’ve been working on the Web for more than a couple of years, you know that predicting that the mobile Web will take off this year is always popular, and always wrong. Thus far, the mobile Web is a small niche for most businesses, but will it remain that way? I started wondering about that as I see the spate of TV commercials leading up to the Droid phone announcement by Verizon Wireless. Yesterday, Motorola and Verizon finally revealed the phone, for which of the details have been leaked for weeks, and it makes me wonder of something finally is changing in the mobile Web.
Before now, your best bet for mobile Web access was the iPhone. To get an iPhone, you not only needed to shell out the cash for a smart phone (which more and more is gaining share over the dumb varieties), but you probably had to switch carriers, to AT&T, which naturally limited the size of the U.S. market for Web browsing. Similar exclusive deals surround the iPhone in other countries.
Now, you non-iPhone users have probably surfed the Web, too, but studies show that iPhone users do it far more. One reason is the browser built into the iPhone is based on WebKit, an open source “rendering” engine that does a far better job of showing Web sites than older mobile browsers.
See, before WebKit, anyone with a Web site needed to fool around with different formatting for the small screen than for computer screens. And before 3G networks, bandwidth was so constrained that images rarely rendered fast enough to be worth the time waiting. There were fat “best practices” documents for mobile Web sites. So, lots of programming time went into futzing around with Web sites to make them mobile-friendly, and more time was sunk into .mobi Web sites and mobile sub-domains. In short, if you wanted your Web site to look good on a mobile phone, you needed to know what you were doing and to pay through the nose on an ongoing basis to make it happen.
As you might expect, that attracted relatively few businesses, and it meant that mobile Web browsing was a hit-or-miss affair, with a few sites providing very nice experiences, while most putting you into a second-class citizen status, causing you to remember to come back and look at that site the next time you are at your computer.
Better screens, higher bandwidth, and WebKit has changed that for iPhone users. Nokia, Palm, and (most important of all) Android phones are all beginning to use WebKit, and other browser rendering engines are beginning to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by WebKit. In the next couple of years, it’s very likely that your mobile phone will do a good job rendering almost any Web site, whether designed for mobile or not.
And, Android phones are poised to be a force in this market–expect a dozen phones in the next few months, spread across virtually all carriers. Like iPhones, Android 2.0 phones are starting to show the ease-of-use needed to spur behavior change for users who want to surf the mobile Web. I can upgrade my phone in January, and I am eying these new Android phones for a place in my pocket.
And that changes things for your business. If you never thought that you should consider mobile users in your Web plans, because not many will use your site and because it is too expensive to retrofit your development, it’s time to re-examine that stance.
Think about what customers might want to do while on the run, whether it is checking order status, opening a service ticket, ordering supplies, or watching a video about your new product. Then check out your site with one of these mobile phones. Can you figure out how to do these tasks?
I know that my Web site fails that test right now, but I am in the process of redesigning, and mobile is one of the things I plan to attack, because someone might want to check me out during a speaking appearance, or just catch up on their blog reading while mobile. I want my site to allow that.
So, even if you’ve heard that the mobile Web is taking off every year for the last five years, it’s time to listen now.