SF Chronicle Launches Mobile Site

SF Gate Home PageHere in San Francisco, the local daily paper is the San Francisco Chronicle.  While it’s not a journalistic giant like The New York Times or Washington Post, it’s still a  pretty good read, with some of my favorite political columnists (Willie Brown, Matier and Ross) and the best local news, sports and business coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area.

One thing about the Chronicle though is that it’s never been very easy to get it on a mobile device.  The paper does have a popular PC web site at SFGate.com which includes almost all the content of the print editions, plus a full searchable archive of back issues.  SFGate.com works pretty well in a good mobile full-web browser like Opera Mini.  But for the 90%  of users stuck with the limited embedded browsers on most feature phones SFGate.com isn’t a possibility.

The Chronicle did offer a mobile subscription service from Roundpoint until recently. It  was priced at $5.99 and used a reader application which was only available for Windows Mobile and Palm OS. Between the cost and the limited device support I can’t imagine it was very popular.

The only mobile web version of the Chronicle I’ve seen up to now was this one from mDog.com, which like most of mDog these days doesn’t really work anymore. It displays the paper’s logo but no content.  I suspect the mDog version wasn’t official, they were probably screen-scraping the SFGate.com site for content and that broke as a result of an SFGate redesign.

Well the paper finally has a proper mobile edition.  It’s at mobile.sfgate.com.  SFGate.com also redirects mobile browsers to the mobile version.  Fear not full-web browser users, you can still get to the full version, if you want.  Just click the link at the bottom of the mobile page labeled “Standard“.  This is something that every site that redirects from their main URL to a mobile variant should be doing.  but which most are not.  Not every mobile user wants the mobile editon, especially if it’s a subset.

SF Gate News ItemMobile.SFGate.com is a subset but a pretty good one.  Today it includes the full text of 18 top news stories and between 5 and 31 items each in the Weird News, Local, Sports, Entertainment, Food & Wine, Business and Technology, Gossip, Home & Garden and Travel sections.  Fourteen of the paper’s columnists and the same number of its blogs are in today’s mobile edition.  I didn’t see Willie Brown’s column but it’s only published on Sunday. Maybe Willie will appear on his publication date.  There are Classified ads but they are strangely limited to just Autos and Real Estate. This seems like a missed bet , where are popular categories like garage sales (a must for mobile), pets and Jobs? Content is rounded out with horoscopes and an Op-Ed page. There are no photos though.  I think that news sites really need to include some news photos.  Of course they need to limited in size and weight to what the browser can handle.  Speaking of which, the only image on the site is the paper’s logo which at  215px wide is too wide for many phone browsers.

SFGate now offers text alerts for breaking news too.  You can sign up at sfgate.com/mobile.

The site design is by a company called Zebra Mobile. I couldn’t seem to find anything out about the company and their home page at zebramm.com is down at the moment.  But the Chronicle site is up and its quite good technically. Page size is well under the 20KB limit supported by almost all mobile browsers, the site’s Ready.mobi score is  a 4 (on a scale of 0 to 5) and the site works without issues on my test handsets.  Usability is generally good too, although I’d like to see Zebra include some Access Keys for site navigation.

You can customize the site to include only the the specfic sections,  columns and blogs you want. Customization is free and is handled completely on the phone, no PC is needed to set it up.SF Gate Customization Screen The way it works is that you enter your mobile number and a password or PIN of your choice and the site sends an SMS containg a four digit. one-time activation key.  When you enter your key on the site it takes you to your own custom URL which you can bookmark. The uncustomized site includes all the available content.  Customization lets you remove the content you that are not interested in.  You can only remove (and add back in) content, its not possible to reorder the sections.  There are a  few sections (Classified, Horoscopes and Obituaries) that you can’t remove. Too bad, I don’t want the Horoscopes or the Classifieds (at least until they include more than Autos and Real Estate). I’d keep the Obits except that they are empty – it’s good to know no one important died recently :)

All gripping aside,  SFGate Mobile site is one of the better mobile local news sites I’ve seen.  The paper is promoting it with large ads in their print edition too.  There is no advertising on the mobile yet other than a banner ad soliciting advertisers.  Given the terrible economics of the newspaper business these days you would think that the Chronicle would be eager to monetize the site immediately using one of the many mobile advertising companies like AdMob while they are waiting for potential advertisers to sign up directly.

Mobile Linkmobile.sfgate.com

Ratings: Content: ****1/2 Usability: XXXX_

Filed in: Mobile Site Directory – News/US Local by State/Alabama – California

3 thoughts on “SF Chronicle Launches Mobile Site

  1. Thank you for your review of our platform. ZebraMobile powers the mobile sites of many of the top newspaper brands. Check out Philly.com (or PhillyMobile.com) and you will find the quick keys to which you were referring. SFGate chose not to include them. On Philly you will find many other cool geocoded features for restaurants and events. These will soon be making their way to SFGate, too.

  2. Eric,

    I love Opera Mini and use it a couple of hours a day.


    1) Hundreds of millions of users are on BREW networks where Opera Mini is not available or have phones where the provider blocks it or it’s incompatible with their phones (the iPhone, Samsung Instinct and M300, for example)

    2) With Opera Mini, I often use mobile formatted sites like mobile.SFGate.com it they contain the information and features I want. Even with a full-web browser, navigation and the overall user experience tends to be better on a made for mobile site.

    3) Users on metered data plans may prefer mobile sites as less data is transfered, even with Opera Mini.

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