Cameron Moll is one of the world’s leading figures on the future of mobile web. .net caught up with him to find out exactly where the mobile web is headed, and why we’ll all be using it
.net: Why the heck is the mobile web so important? Aren’t we limited by things like screen size too much?
Cameron Moll: That’s a common mistake web developers make when assessing the mobile web experience: we assume the mobile experience is merely an extension of the desktop experience, when it really needs to be treated as its own environment. The truth of the matter is that the mobile web experience can be every bit as good an experience, but in its own right. With mobile devices, contextual relevance is everything. I might be accessing web content while holding a drink in one hand. And I might be seeking only simple data such as directions.
As for the importance of the mobile web, look at it this way: more people worldwide have access to a mobile phone than a PC, and that means only one thing – more people to access the web content you’ve worked so hard to create. That’s what excites me.
.net: Accessing the mobile web is one thing, but what are the challenges in developing for it?
CM: We’ve already mentioned screen size. Data input restrictions are another. But probably the biggest challenge is user agent inconsistency. There are dozens of user agents on a few hundred different devices, all of which render HTML, CSS and images in vastly different ways.
The good news is we’re getting past the WAP 1.0 and WML hurdle. Nearly all devices sold today are WAP 2.0 devices, and XHTML is the preferred markup language for WAP 2.0. This means you and I can apply our desktop skills to begin to understand how to develop for the mobile web.
.net: For those that are considering retrofitting an existing website/web app to be more accessible to mobile users, where do you start?
CM: Without question, the process begins with understanding your audience and what they want from your site/app, and what the contextual relevance of such a site/app is.
Take my portfolio page, for example. It displays reasonably well on a mobile device, although the image download size is rather large for a phone. But regardless of whether users can access my portfolio on their phone, do they really want to? I should consider what parts of my site users will want to access with their mobile device and in what context they’ll do so.
So the question really becomes, what’s relevant to your users and what are the problems and needs they may encounter while being mobile? Answer that question and you’ll start on the right foot.
.net: Is it better to have a specific domain for a mobile site to run alongside an existing URL?
CM: That’s a heated debate right now, especially with the rollout of .mobi, a newly approved top-level domain reserved specifically for mobilised sites. On the one hand, creating a secondary domain just for mobile content can be a challenge for users to remember. On the other hand, chances are you’ll need a secondary domain anyway, whether a simple directory, a sub-domain, or an entirely new domain, in which relevant mobile content is stored. Whether you hide that domain from users or make it publicly available depends on your overall mobile strategy.
.net: What’s going to be the impact of .mobi?
CM: It will be a few months before the impact of .mobi, and the domain registration and usage statistics by site developers and users, can be assessed. Russell Beattie, one of Yahoo!’s mobile experts, says .mobi is what’s needed to kick-start the mobile web. Carlo Longino of mobhappy.com argues it’s a useless replacement for user agent sniffing – a technology that’s already been in use for years.
I’m still forming an opinion, but in the end I expect it to fare well with users and developers. What baffles me is why they chose a four-character TLD, given the difficulty of data entry on mobile devices.
.net: How far have mobile browsers got to go?
CM: Practically, not that far. There are plenty of sites that are accessible on phones right now. Yahoo!’s FIFA mobile site for the 2006 World Cup, Flickr Mobile, Gmail Mobile, etc. For ideal use, there’s a long way to go. I’d love to see user agent technology explore new territory, such as speedreading browsers and GPS-enabled web services on devices other than phones.
.net: What’s going to determine the development of the mobile web the most?
CM: Users will determine whether technological advancements by these players will be of any value.
.net: Are the web standards of the desktop web entirely appropriate to the mobile web?
CM: There’s really no need to establish new standards just for the mobile web. The underlying standards for the web are the same: semantic markup, separation of structure and presentation, and so on. The W3C’s Mobile Web Initiative (MWI) is doing much to promote recommendations for delivering content to mobile devices with its Best Practices Working Group.
.net: Are technologies such as Ajax paving the way for a better mobile web?
CM: Perhaps, but I don’t think we know that just yet. Ajax, or whatever the mobile equivalent might be, could vastly improve the mobile experience.