I attended Mobile Web Megatrends today in Berkeley. The one day conference was organized by Ajit Jaokar and included an amazing 18 presentations packed into one day of total mobile web immersion. A highlight of the day was meeting a couple of mobile experts, bloggers and authors I’ve enjoyed reading for years, Barbara Ballard and Michael Mace.
There were a lot of great talks and Q&A at the conference. It’s impossible for me to cover them all in even a limited fashion but I wanted to try and capture a bit of the flavor of the conference. For me one theme that stood out was that the mobile web can not be an inferior version of the full PC web.
For a long time the limited capabilities of mobile browsers dictated two webs, most full web sites simply would load on most phones and if they did usability was poor. The idea was to provide a mobile equivalent of the full web. The problem was that the mobile web wasn’t very good. Many popular sites didn’t have a mobile versions and those that did they typically contained a limited subset of the content and features found on the same publisher’s full web sites. This was justified by the belief that users, no matter what they said, didn’t really want the full web on their phones. The PC web would always be too hard to use on mobiles. Much of full web content was irrelevant to what were believed to be the dominant use cases of mobile browsing. Users supposedly didn’t want to surf the web on phones, they wanted to quickly find a few bits of information relevant to their immediate interests like weather, traffic and maybe a sports score or stock price.
Now we have full web browsers including Opera Mini, iPhone Safari, Skyfire and S60WebKit. Users of these browsers can visit almost any site including mobile web sites. They should prefer the mobile web’s streamlined navigation and context aware content. Wrong! According to Opera‘s Tatsuki Tomita, only about 30% of the sites Opera Mini users visit are designed for mobile. Skyfire‘s Raj Singh echoed that saying the most popular sites with their users were the full web versions of YouTube and MySpace. Raj also noted that much of SkyFire’s traffic goes to smaller and more obscure sites with 56% of SkyFire traffic split among 100 thousand different domains. So there is a long tail on mobile too. These kind of statistics say to me that people want to use the web on mobiles much like they do on PCs.
Does this mean the mobile web is dead? Should we all forget about developing mobile sites. Definitely not, at least not yet. The market share of full web browsers is growing but it is still low, around 10% worldwide. The real lesson of this data is that users do not want dumbed down , subset-ed mobile sites, they want to see and do all things that they can on the PC on their mobiles. Content (and functionality) is king even, or especially, on mobile.
One presenter who understands that mobile content must match PC web content in quality and content is ESPN‘s, Dan Mason. The sports website has a mobile offering that is deep and wide and includes essentially the same content as the full site. And it’s working, ESPN is the most popular mobile sports site in the US with traffic double it’s nearest competitors. Traffic peaks on Mobile ESPN frequently match those of ESPN’ s full site. Of course it’s not just content that makes ESPN Mobile such a success, in fact much of Dan’s presentation was devoted to all the techniques ESPN uses to drive traffic to the site including home screen and carrier portal placement and links in SMS alerts.
Carriers see the demand from users for the full web. That’s why they are implementing transcoders. In my experience transcoding, while often OK, doesn’t give the usability of a full-browser like Opera or Webkit, let alone a well designed mobile site. And publishers and web designers hate anyone, including transcoders from mucking with their content.
The user demand for the full web on mobiles is creating some real opportunities for web publishers. To meet that demand publishers need to do two things.
- Test PC sites in popular full web browsers like iPhone Safari, S60WebKi, Opera Mini and Mobile. The full web browser is the future, get in on the ground floor by tweaking your sites today to look and work their best in this growing browser market segment.
- Build mobile sites that work on all mobile browsers and contain as much of the content and functionality of your full sites as possible.
The web on mobile is taking off, driven by the iPhone, cheaper mobile data and expontential rates of growth in web use on mobiles in countries where PC penetration is low, especially India and China. But users won’t bother with limited, token mobile content. The Mobile web must be the real web regardless of how it’s formatted.