Mobile websites

It’s no secret that the number of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices is soaring. It is estimated that there are over 1 billion (with a ‘b’) smartphones currently in use, and the numbers are growing rapidly. At the end of 2012, approximately 13% of all Internet traffic was mobile.

Does that mean that you need a separate, mobile optimized website? Well, the answer is a resounding maybe.

Why is a mobile website different?

When considering a mobile website, the first major issue is to understand why a mobile site is different than a traditional one.

As it turns out, most mobile phones are actually quite good at displaying traditional websites. While the old Blackberry that I had prior to my iPhone 5 offered a pretty poor web surfing experience, newer phones including the iPhone, Android, and the recently released Blackberry 10 do just fine. With multi-touch zooming and virtual keyboards, even the problems associated with operating a functional website or making an on-line purchase on a small screen largely disappear. While it may not be as convenient as a mouse and a wide screen desktop monitor, it works.

Mobile websites take a different approach than traditional ones. They typically use large and clunky buttons scaled to the width of the device, and stack things vertically rather than spreading them out horizontally over the desktop. Even more significant, they may adjust to the specific device and screen size.

The way this usually works is through a long established technology called ‘browser sniffing’. Almost all web browsers provide the server (which is where the web page comes from) with information about itself. The server can then use this information to change what it sends to the browser.

Throughout the earlier 2000’s when the browser wars were raging, this was used to implement cross browser fixes to compensate for the incompatibilities between Internet Explorer, Netscape and other early browsers. Today, most desktop browsers largely adhere to industry standards, so there is less need for traditional browser sniffing techniques. But these same techniques can inform the server that you are using a smartphone, and tell it which one. Software can then be used to modify the website coding sent to the phone to optimize it for the particular device.

Is a mobile site important?

The answer to this question depends on the website itself, and how difficult it is to view and operate on the small screen. Mobile websites will almost always be a little easier to navigate on your phone, and the problem of having to scroll sideways will disappear. But there is a tradeoff, and it is actually a big one. To understand it, we have to examine how mobile websites are created in the first place.

How a mobile website is created

First of all, you might want to consider that a mobile website is really a whole new site, with different layout, site graphics, navigation and so forth. Most of the content is usually taken from the main website, but some of the main site’s content is usually omitted from the mobile site.

The most vexing parts of a mobile website are (a) adapting to each individual mobile device, (b) selectively carrying over the content, and (c) updating the mobile website content when the main site changes. If this all had to be hand coded and maintained by a developer, there would be few if any mobile sites.

In order to address these issues, software developers have created systems that attempt to automatically generate a mobile site from a traditional one by scanning the website code, attempting to extract the content (text and images) and decipher the navigation. The program will then spill the content into a newly formed mobile site using a predefined template, creating buttons to mimic the navigation options of the original site.

As it turns out, this approach doesn’t work very well, yet it is a lifesaver (if you want a mobile site, that is). The reason that it doesn’t work very well is that websites tend to be complicated, and all but the most basic don’t translate very well without extensive human intervention. So the process of creating a mobile site usually starts with a machine translation, and ends with an effort (often substantial) by humans to clean up the mess the machine creates.

This is one of the reasons why most mobile sites have less content than the corresponding traditional site. Some content doesn’t translate well at all to a mobile device, and is simply removed. Other content is omitted from the mobile site for budgetary reasons, because the cost of adapting it seems more than the value that it would bring.

This is also the reason why almost all mobile websites include a link somewhere near the bottom to navigate to the traditional site, primarily for those users that would like to access the missing content through their phone.

How we are approaching mobile websites

We feel that mobile websites can create substantial value for some organizations, and less for others, but they definitely have their place. The greatest value would be for firms or organizations that specifically need to interact with people on the go. For example, you’re much more likely to look for a restaurant on your phone than an insurance agency.

There are also specific features and marketing strategies that are well supported by mobile devices, such as the ability to initiate a call by touching a phone number, or offering live coupons to consumers who are in proximity to a retail establishment.

We are currently in the final stages of planning the release of a mobile website development service, using a software platform from a third party vendor. If you are interested, please contact us. We are currently seeking a small number of pilot projects, and you’ll get a great deal and lots of attention.