The mobile Internet: Are we there yet?

C|Net News.com published an article on the state of Internet on mobile devices today. In the article, it is said that in order more people to use the internet via their cellphones “more-sophisticated handsets, improved mobile browsing technology and increased coverage of high-speed wireless networks” are needed.

Personally, as a web developer and a mobile user I disagree. But let’s take the article’s statement apart:

– more-sophisticated handsets

Why do you need anything more sophisticated than a QVGA cellphone? The web developers could have made sure that their mobile version of their site works on such a screen resolution. If the browsers’ fonts are not huge (like on some RaZR phones), then there is no reason why a good looking, well-designed site couldn’t have its full functionality render well on a mid-range phone. OSNews has 95% of its functionality on its mobile version, and the rest is not there mostly because I am lazy rather than any major technical roadblocks.

– improved mobile browsing technology

Why do you need Javascript and full blown CSS 2.0 support? I do everything I need to do with plain cHTML. It works, and it works well. I don’t understand people’s infatuation trying to use the latest and the greatest technologies without thinking memory, cpu and compatibility constraints. It almost seems that these people are more interested in squashing their own hunger for “cool stuff”, rather than offering a solution that actually works with most browsers including legacy ones. Sure, some Ajax and JS might be a good addition in a few years (Opera Mobile and Nokia Webkit already offer it, but together have less than 5% of mobile marketshare so far), but I don’t see the current browsers being useless just because they don’t have yet these features. Mobile browsing technologies right now are comparable as to how desktop browsers were 6-8 years ago. And I could do a lot of things back then too. I don’t perceive my desktop experience in 1999 as bad. In fact, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the mobile experience I get today.

– increased coverage of high-speed wireless networks

You need nothing more than EDGE (22 KB/sec). And even plain GPRS (4 KB/sec) is enough for most things designed the right way. Take osnews’ frontpage for example, it’s just 28 KBs (including images) and it has the right length for a cellphone screen (so you don’t scroll endlessly). OSNews loads on an EDGE phone in about than 2 seconds. Do you really need more speed than that? Not if mobile autodetection was a standard and full-featured mobile pages with a nice design were the norm.

It is true that people want to have access to the same information on their mobile phone as they do with their desktop browser. But this can be done easily if the web developers were more careful of what they are doing and if a standard way of mobile browser autodetection was in place for the past 8 years. You see, the current mobile browsers are trying to re-layout existing web sites to look good on small screens. I firmly believe that this is a waste of time (and CPU). No matter how good your algorithm is (usually it’s not), the result will never be as good as the desktop experience or as good as a specialized mobile design. So, scrap that re-layout crap and focus on making your browsers bug-free instead and at the same time evangelize how to autodetect your browser and help web developers to offer mobile-optimized content.

And no, CSS-based layout is out of the question for 90% of our current mobile browsers. And don’t forget that when you create a “handheld”-based CSS layout, your FULL sized images of the desktop “screen”-based CSS layout is ALSO loaded. So for example, if your web site’s front page is overall 400 KB and seemingly your handheld-CSS is about 50 KB, the rest 350 KB will also be loaded, but it just won’t be displayed. 400 KBs of web data is enough to CRASH most phones, let alone actually render that beast of a page. This is why mobile-optimized pages must be created instead in cHTML or XHTML and not use CSS for layout, but only for optional beautification. At least until 2010, until more handsets have more memory and more browsers support CSS the right way.

In my opinion, the whole blame for the current crappy situation goes to W3C. They did not create a standard at the late-90s to ease the auto-detection of mobile browsers as I have explained here the other day.

In conclusion, there is no way out in the current mess. No matter if .mobi takes off, or if browsers get better, the same kinds of problems will still exist simply because 99.9% of the web developers don’t care about mobility. It’s like the chicken and the egg problem. The only way out is this, that it might be ready in 10 years or so. This is a foldable LCD that eventually will reach large resolutions, and in color (currently is monochrome, and just in QVGA and without animation support). Until then, the debate will continue, and consumers will not be using the mobile internet as much as they could.

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Antoine of MMM wrote on August 29th, 2006 at 10:52 AM PST:

This is a pretty well put together set of points you have here. And while I do agree with most of your premise, some blame needs to also be put on browsers that half support even the more mobile-friendly/accessible standards. You are most right in saying that teh W3C could have done more years ago. Unfortunately, unless the social web takes off even more (which it should), the W3C will not be forced to do anything more than to appear as if they are solving issues.


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Eugenia wrote on August 29th, 2006 at 10:58 AM PST:

>some blame needs to also be put on browsers that half support

Actually, this is debatable. You see, there are still new cellphones using browers that are forced to run with just 512 KBs of RAM (pre-reserved for the browser only) and 33 Mhz of CPU. You can’t do much with such hardware specs. The browser manufacturers have to cut corners from all over the place to even just manage to load their browser app up. And they usually have to remove lots of functionality or just support WML in order to do just that.

The problem even exists on smartphones (not as much, but the problem is occasionally still there). For example, try to browse with Opera Mobile on the P990 on a big site, and see the system auto-closing the browser because it just ran out of memory (and remember, the P990 has 64 MBs of RAM!!!). The Sony PSP also runs out of memory on many sites (32 MBs of RAM and Netfront). The Nokia 770 also suffers from this, although not as much.

But I will agree that there are some shipped versions of browsers that are extremely buggy or very limited (RaZR’s MiB browser comes to mind). They could definitely be a bit better, but not a whole lot better.


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Eugenia wrote on August 30th, 2006 at 1:19 AM PST:

Another problem is of course GPRS charges. $10 per 1 MB is a terribly high charge.


rubik kahn wrote on August 30th, 2006 at 1:31 AM PST:

Nokia 770 + Bluetooth EVDO on cell phone = extreme happiness… enjoy your 2″ screen. lol


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Eugenia wrote on August 30th, 2006 at 6:44 AM PST:

Rubik, you are talking about the Nokia 770 which has Bluetooth 1.2 (maxed out at 40 KB/sec) and an EVDO phone (maxed out at about 200-250 KB/sec). Basically, what you are going to get is just 40 KB/sec, which is just twice as fast as EDGE, but nowhere near as fast as HSDPA or EVDO. Bluetooth 1.2 without EDR is your *bottleneck* here.

Next time you try to post something like this, do the necessary math first. ;)


Song Huang wrote on August 30th, 2006 at 8:30 AM PST:

I agree that the mobile internet is useful the way it is. Heck, who would of thought SMS would be such a big money maker. The interface for that is…basically nothing! I think it’s the availability of compelling services that will make people pay for data access.

My company (www.soonr.com) can give you access to your data and your applications on PCs all over the world from a normal WAP phone. Check it out and I think it’ll change the way you think about “regular” phones.


turn.self.off wrote on September 3rd, 2006 at 3:10 AM PST:

but rubic still got a point.

why cram every function one can dream of into a single mobile phone when a system like bluetooth can make multiple devices, specificaly designed for their task, work together?

sure, the function of the mobile phone would be more or less marginlized into a modem/network “card”, but i dont see the problem with that.

take a picture with a camera that have a proper lense and resolution for the job. write a message on a device that have a interface that makes sense for that task (maybe that invalidates the 770, the jury is out). and send it via the phone’s link to the outside world.

trying to create a mms on a mobile phone is just silly. sms works because its simple. write the text and be done with it. mms is like craming a desktop publishing program into a mobile phone. or like trying to cram your avarage web page into it ;)


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