As cool as pinch to zoom is, I’m not convinced that it is the best user interface for using full web sites on screens smaller than the sites were designed for. There is an older, simpler technology that I find is a lot more efficient for what most people use a web browser for; reading, filling out forms, and viewing images and videos. I’m talking about “fit to width” which is simply resizing page elements like columns, text areas and images so that they are no wider than the physical width of the screen and re-flowing text to wrap at the screen’s edge. Opera pioneered the use of fit to width, which they call “Small Screen Rendering”, in mobile full web browsers and still has the best implementation. Netfront, the Blackberry browser, Mobile Internet Explorer and Teleca all offer mobile browsers with some sort of fit to width option.
So why is fit to width better? Simply because it requires fewer user actions to consume the content of a web page. A zooming interface like the iPhone’s forces the user to make constant adjustments; scrolling left or right to follow a column of text as it snakes around images (see top image) and through indents and out-dents, zooming out to find the next field in a web form and then zooming in to enter text, zooming out to see a YouTube video full screen, etc. With fit to width (bottom image – note the absence of a horizontal scrollbar), it’s just a matter of pressing the page down key to scroll through the entire page, not very sexy but a lot more efficient. Incidentally, a dedicated page down key is something every mobile browser on a non-touch screen device should have but which several including the Nokia N95’s Webkit and Opera Mobile on Motorola handsets don’t.
I’m concerned that Opera and other browser vendors, in an effort to mimic the iPhone, are moving away from fit to width. With Mini 4, Opera introduced Desktop View which offers a miniaturized version of a full web page with the option to zoom in on an area on interest.
It’s not just Opera that is ignoring fit to width. NetFront has had a bug with CSS relative positioning in their “SmartFit” implementation though at least three major releases. For years, Mobile IE has shrunk text fields to to an unusably small width in fit to width mode. Two new full web browsers, TeaShark and Skyfire have no fit to width mode at all and of course Nokia’s otherwise excellent WebKit based S60 browser has never had a fit to width option either.
The desktop view style of web browser interface as it’s implemented on non-touch screen phones, with two or more fixed levels of zoom and navigating using the keypad, is even less usable than the iPhone’s continuously zoomable touch interface. I’ve heard it called keyhole view, it really is like viewing the web through a keyhole. I find I can read long news articles much more quickly and with fewer keystrokes and less frustration when using fit to width Mobile View in Opera Mini compared with Desktop (keyhole) View.
What do you think? Do you prefer fit to width over interfaces where you zoom out to navigate and zoom in to read ? Comments are open.