Do Transcoders and the iPhone Make the Mobile Web Obsolete?

I like‘s mobile transcoder. It’s one of the best ways to make desktop websites into something usable on a phone and it works with just about every html-capable phone on the planet. Last week Skweezer issued a press release announcing a tweak they made to the service.

The tweak is that Skweezer rolled back a change they made a month and a half ago. Instead of identifying itself through it’s User Agent header as Internet Explorer, Skweezer had tried sending the user’s handset User Agent. This change was made at the request of operators of sites that offer content like ringtones and games for download. Content download sites need to be able to identify the make and model of the phone in order to deliver content that will work properly.

The problem was that sites that used browser detection were now delivering the mobile versions of pages to Skweezer instead of the desktop ones. Users were complaining that the mobile sites were lacking content and features that they used and enjoyed in the transcoded versions of the desktop sites. Skweezer has gone back to identifying itself as IE again.

I’m glad Skweezer made this change. When I use a transcoder it’s to get a full-web site to load on my phone so I can grab a piece of information that I already know is there. I certainly don’t want to be redirected to a mobile site. If what I needed was on a mobile site I wouldn’t be using a transcoder – I’d just go right to the mobile site.

Skweezer‘s press release, titled Made-For-Mobile Web Content Falls Short of Users’ Expectations, seems to imply that there is no point in building mobile sites, that using Skweezer to transcode a desktop site results in a better user experience than a typical made for mobile one. I’ve been hearing this sort of comment a lot since the release of the iPhone. It’s easy to assume that now that we can browse any website with the iPhone’s Safari, Nokia’s Webkit or the Opera mobile browsers there’s no need for mobile specific sites. I don’t agree and neither does Dave Winer.

 My OperaIt’s true that full-web browsers are changing the mobile web landscape but that doesn’t mean web designers don’t need to adapt content for them. Many mobile sites are so badly designed or have such limited content that users have to turn to the site’s PC version to get what they need. I do that quite a bit myself. But getting to the information on a full-web site, even using a great browser like Opera Mini is often a tortured and painful process. It doesn’t have to be that way. By using good design practices as suggested by Apple and Opera, full sites can offer decent navigation to these powerful small screen browsers. Compare the images of My Opera with for an example of the difference mobile aware design can make in a full web

There also is still a place for the pure mobile web site. Less than 10% of phones have full-web browsers today. That number will increase and eventually reach 100%. But screen real-estate and ease of input will still be limited. Purpose built mobile sites can work around the limitations to give the best possible experience. As mobile browsers get more powerful new types of exclusively mobile web services will become possible. Already we have streaming media on mobiles and soon it should be possible to share your GPS or cell location with mobile services to provide location aware information without having to type in an address. Integration with near field communication for mobile payments is another technology that is surely coming to the mobile web. Jason Delport has a good piece on the need for mobile specific markup to exploit these opportunities.

What is the best way for web developers to reach the huge audience of 2 million mobile phone users world-wide? For most sites you still need two versions. A full-web version that is designed to degrade gracefully for maximum usability on the iPhone and other full web mobile browsers and a mobile specific version with no JavaScript that is under 10 KB of markup and 20 KB total page weight including images and style sheets for the limited browsers still prevalent on phones.

Browser detection has gotten a bad name because many sites force mobile browsers to mobile sites and unidentified browsers to full sites with no way to override the re-direction. Steve Rubel says End Mobile Browser Sniffing and Give Consumers Choices. He has a point although I wouldn’t throw out browser sniffing completely. It’s good for discovery to have a single url for both mobile and full sites. But users need to be able override the re-direction. Providing a link to the mobile version at the top of your full site’s pages and a link to the full version somewhere on the mobile site gives users both discovery and choice.

8 thoughts on “Do Transcoders and the iPhone Make the Mobile Web Obsolete?

  1. It will make it obsolete like any kind of info technology today will be replaced. I think the mobile web is great, but it is a stripped down version of the real thing, so the quicker you have the “real” thing on the IPhones or similar things the better it will be!

  2. The iPhone is quickly spreading but it doesn’t mean that all manufacturer will make phones with a full html browser in them, we will probably still see the mobile versions for a long long time! Here in Portugal everything comes a few years after, so we are in for a long wait :)

  3. I agree that there is atleast short term need for seperate websites for PC and mobile. Who knows in 3 years we have foldable screens that you can unwrap and browse the internet ?

    BuildMymobi is a easy website builder for small busiensses without much technical knowledge to build a separate mobile website for their business. It can aslo detect the browser ad redirect PC requests to the main website. I hope small business embrace the mobile web.

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  5. I’ll start by quoting two people that said it quite nicely…

    Cameron Moll, “This is a desktop-mentality approach — that sites are viewed “correctly” first on the desktop, and that they should then be viewed the same on anything else.”

    Gaddo F Benedetti, “[W]hat sells the mobile Web is not how it is similar to the desktop Web, but how it differs. The mobile Web is a phenomenal platform to build and exploit applications. But until even we, the industry who build them, stop thinking of it as primarily “the Internet on your phone”, both users and clients will see it as little more than a poor man’s browser.”

    IMHO – There will always be a need for “sites for small places” – irregardless of what that small place is (any device w/internet connection) or the definition of what a “site” is (mobile site, app, or widget) – form factors, time of day, location (Where are you?, Where are you heading?), or mode (moving or standing still, working or having fun) – each drive a need for a relevant mobile and mobile aware experience.

    …and in spite of the iPhone’s full Internet browsing capabilities are not the use of “widgets” an acknowledgement of how access to the “desktop web” is only part of the solution?

  6. No. Not in the near future anyway. But quite obviously no, so I’m glad everyone’s in agreement here. There two arguments here are at odds: the iPhone argument is that mobile devices like iPhone are really desktop browsers, and their magic removes input and screen size limits. iPhone is great, but nobody actually thinks of it as roughly equivalent to a desktop PC. Given the choice you would prefer the PC, I’m sure; you wouldn’t sit in front of your Mac and browse on the iPhone. The “portable desktop web” exists and it is called a laptop.

    The second argument is that transcoding or other client-server adaptation systems will adjust big sites to fit within the limitations of a mobile device, which is actually a bit at odds with the first argument. It says, no, mobile devices won’t be able to access the desktop web directly, but, can do so with some careful automated trimming. Transcoders out there do an amazing job of picking a usable page out of sites that well, not even very usable on the desktop. :) When the site in question is informational, the transcoders are near flawless at getting you the info you want. When it’s an interactive site (think Hotmail?) they’re hopeless. Transcoders help *supplement* the mobile web experience quite admirably, but do not an experience make.

    Together these arguments are less than their sum, so I answer “no”. Google itself attempts a two-pronged strategy; you see most mobile devices go to a minimal, customized mobile search interface, and I think you will see high end devices, ah, carefully directed to desktop versions of sites where appropriate. (IMHO the “simple” interface looks absolutely perfect on iPhone.) This is still a small number of devices. So please, keep making those mobile sites. Almost all phones we see work best with a mobile-specific experience.

  7. Agree, but not only because of the screen size / input device / page weight / markup gymnastics arguments.

    Humans using a mobile phone are in a very different context to those at a PC. So how on earth can sites providing services to sedentary web users exceed, by default, the expectations of those who are mobile?

    It’s a fact oft forgotten: people just want to different stuff when they are out and about.

    Form follows function. Transcoders adapt form, not function.

    No wonder users on the other side of the mobile screen feel dissatisfied!

    (similar points made here)

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