Web developers should be asking "Which version of my pages should I serve to these advanced browsers, the stripped down mobile version, a special 'iPhone' page or the full page as delivered to Firefox and IE?"
Conventional wisdom has it that delivering a page designed for mobile to any handheld device is best. Mobile screen size is small, scrolling is harder than on a PC and only a subset of most site's content is relevant on a phone. I generally agree with the conventional wisdom but with one caveat.
Give users the option to load either the full or the mobile version of your site regardless of what browser they are using. It's great to redirect mobile browsers to a fast loading, easy to navigate mobile version but there should also be a way to get to the same page that you serve to PC browsers. The best way to do this is with a link labeled "Full Version" or something similar on every mobile page. I like to put he "Full Site" link at the bottom of the page on the theory that anyone with a browser capable of viewing the full page should have no problem navigating all the way to the end of a mobile page and if by the time they get there they haven't found what they are looking for it's time to offer them the option of seeing the full content of my site.
I also believe that there should be a link to the mobile edition on every page of the full site so that users who land there with their phones have the option to try the mobile edition. It's a good promotional tactic too, reminding PC users that they can use your site on their phones. The "Mobile Edition" link should be at the very top of the page to make it easy to find even with a limited mobile browser that can't load the whole page.
I thought I was doing a pretty good job of serving the appropriate pages to mobile visitors to this blog while still giving them options. If you went to WapReview.com/blog or any of the pages under it with most mobile browsers including Opera Mobile, NetFront, S60Webkit and Opera Mini you were redirected to the mobile version of whatever page you requested. There's a "Full Site" link at the bottom of each page that sets a session cookie to override browser detection and render the full version on all subsequent requests until you close the browser or navigate away from WapReview.com
Last week I got an email from an unhappy Opera Mini user who said it wasn't working and he was it being forced to the mobile site, although he preferred the full version. The "Full Site" link did what it says but only for one page. Clicking any link on the full page took him back to the mobile version. I tested and the user was correct, my code worked correctly with Webkit and Opera 8.65 but not only sporadically with Opera Mini. Either there is something wrong with the way I'm setting or reading the cookie or there's a bug in Opera Mini's handling of session cookies.
I'm a heavy user of Opera Mini and I use it with mix of full and mobile sites - whichever works best for a particular site. For gMail and HowardForums I use the full sites. but I prefer the mobile editions of Bloglines and Velonews' Live Tour de France reports. When I check out WapReview from my phone I almost always use the mobile version (top image) because it looks nicer (Opera doesn't render the tabbed top menu of the full site very well - see second image) and navigation is a little easier. But the mobile site is a subset of the full site. It's missing the contact form, downloads page, mobile web directory and archives by category - all of which could be of interest to a mobile user.
When I visit the Opera Mini Forum at MyOpera.com I see dozens of posts complaining of sites forcing users to their mobile versions. I couldn't find anyone complaining about sites that block Opera Mini users from their mobile versions even though there are plenty that do just that. Contrary to conventional wisdom, many Opera Mini users seem very comfortable with browsing the full web and get annoyed when forced to a mobile subset. I think that there are two reasons for that, namely speed and usability. S60WebKit and Opera Mobile 8.65 on my N95 both take nearly 30 seconds to load this blog's 300 KB front page on a 3G UMTS connection. Opera Mini loads it 10 seconds, almost as fast as the 9 seconds it takes the other browsers to load the 20 KB mobile version! Opera Mini on 3G gives PC like performance, at 10 seconds it compares favorably with the 7 seconds Firefox 3 on a 1.5 mbs DSL connection requires to load the same page. I couldn't believe how fast Opera Mini was, and yes I did clear the browser's cache between tests. Browsing full pages with Opera Mini is remarkably easy too thanks to Fit to Width, in page search and a dedicated page down key.
I've modified WapReview's browser detection code to treat Opera Mini like a PC browser and send it the full version. The only other mobile browser that gets this treatment is the iPhone's Safari. The mobile edition is still available to Opera Mini (and iPhone) users via the "Mobile Edition" link which points to a different domain (wapreview.mobi) and doesn't depend on cookies for persistence.
I was considering doing the same for Opera Mobile, S60Webkit, and Netfront. I decided against it because, in some cases, those browsers can't even completely load the full front page of this blog. Many S60 phones have very limited RAM causing WebKit to crash when loading large pages. NetFront is found on many feature phones which in my experience can't handle pages over 100 KB. What do you think? Are there any other mobile browsers that do a good enough job with big full-web pages for that to be the default mode?