I like Skweezer.net'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.
It'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 AOL.com for an example of the difference mobile aware design can make in a full web site.
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.
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.