While I admire Opera Software’s work and persistence in advancing browser design, I can’t help but roll my eyes reading their recent announcement. Opera has developed a mobile browsing technology that has, as Paul Festa reports, “finally solved the long-standing problem of reading big, bulky Web pages on tiny cell phone screens, posing a potential threat to both WAP and to Microsoft.”
Mobile users don’t browse like they do from their desks, so let’s stop trying to repurpose content designed for the Web.
WAP has failed for a host of reasons including the inherent security hole of the WAP gateway architecture, initial deployment on circuit-switched networks as opposed to always-on packet-switched data networks, and a lack of well-designed and useful applications. Even once addressed, browsing would still have its issues and limitations in the mobile arena. Mobile users are "on the go" and generally not in environments where they have the time or patience to navigate content as they would seated at their desks. Their environment requires useful content and applications to be location-based, time sensitive and concise. In addition, utilizing an architecture where nearly all the data and logic resides on a remote server is a poor fit with the reality of unreliable and low bandwidth connections. It frustrates users and erodes their confidence.
Besides, WAP and more specifically WML (WAP’s markup display language) is becoming more symbiotic with the Web. WML2 is an extension of XHTML that utilizes a mobile specific profile. (In his CNET article, Fiesta incorrectly compares WAP and HTML that is apples and oranges. WAP and Web Architecture or WML and HTML would have been more appropriate.)
I’ve always been skeptical when it comes to these attempts to repurpose web content on a mobile device as Opera’s proposal or existing implementations such as Danger’s HipTop browser. I’ve never seen them succeed at anything but frustrating users.
Web pages are designed for large high-resolution color displays, the use of keyboard and mouse and a reliable and relatively high bandwidth connection. Being a display language HTML is not terribly efficient or reliable for consumption by another application. "Qualified guessing" will yield the equivalent of a Frankenstein monster. It’s a hack at best.
Yes, if designed properly a Web page will scale gracefully and adapt to different displays and resolutions — IF is the operative word though. Like eating your vegetables, most of know we should do it, but don’t. Face it, web sites do some rather freaky things with HTML. You don’t have to go past the world’s most prominent software company’s site to witness that.
Despite my criticisms in this area, I still believe in the promise of mobile computing. Mobile data devices will eventually surpass the number of desktops. They’re more affordable and the constraints of these devices insist on a simplicity that will assist the mass-market in embracing interactive services.
Repurposing Web content for mobile is not the answer, it’s a hack. Studying mobile users’ needs and tendencies, getting content into easily consumable formats and developing more usable and appropriate mobile applications are the real answers.
What do you think is the answer to mobile computing design?