There’s No Such Thing as the Mobile Web

In the beginning, there was the One Web without form, but it was boring and used mostly by professors. Then, God said, “let there be content, and Netscape, and Jerry’s list of links,” and there was. That begat animated gifs and they were funny and eye-catching and it was good. The nerds living in the garden of surfing were happy. Then into the garden came a serpent that could be carried in the pocket and could make calls and it was called “cellphone.” And the serpent spoke to the nerds and told them: “Yea, I can do more than just make calls – I, too, can access the web! Well, sort of.” And the nerds carved a slice from the…uh, rib, of the One Web and called it “the mobile web.” And more serpents came – the early smartphones, which actually were not – and mobile users were cast out of the garden and into a world where their sites would be “loading” until the end of days…

This is a story of toil and tears. For most of the decade or so that we’ve been accessing IP data on our phones, the experience has been incredibly painful. Phones have lacked decent graphics capability, real estate, processing power, data connection speeds, battery life, and browser rendering capability. (Other than that, they were just fine.) And as demand for mobile access to information and entertainment content grew faster than these limitations could be addressed, the idea of the “mobile web” sprang up as a workaround to allow devices with little ability to browse the web an opportunity to at least get something.

We tried myriad mobile operating systems, like Windows CE (aka “wince”) or Flash Cast from Adobe, and we even tried caching content locally synching with PCs. With nothing else to rely on, we turned to WAP, or “wireless access protocol,” the stripped down, bare bones (and widely vilified) affair created just for phones.

There’s a reason we used to say “WAP is crap.”

To be fair, fits and starts like these are totally normal as technology evolves. The real problem is that the digital industry took a wrong turn by coining the term “the mobile web” to describe accessing content on mobile devices. Here’s what I mean: we’ve been designing ways for consumers to access content on the TV, but no one talks about the “TV web” or “living room web.” Describing mobile Internet access as “the mobile web” implies that there’s something specific about the web accessed by mobile devices. It’s still the same Internet, and the longer we think about the web accessed via mobile as a discrete area, the more problems it will cause. “The mobile web” is an outdated concept, and the more quickly we all shift our thinking, the better.

WebTV was awful, but we didn’t mistake it for a different animal.

We can’t think about “mobile” as a big category that includes anything we can carry – we have to think about devices, and, if you haven’t noticed, devices have gotten more complicated. A colleague at Nielsen recently described the internal fight they had when the iPad turned the tablet into a device category to be reckoned with: to what group does the tablet belong? TV? PC? Mobile? This dilemma underscores the difficulty of device classification and the chameleon-like nature of multi-function devices. If I have a Droid Incredible plugged into a power source and sitting on a dock so my kids can watch a movie, is it more of a phone or more of a TV? As soon as you classify an experience as “mobile,” you’re taking it out of the entire digital landscape and putting it in a silo.

Apps, which started out as specific to mobile phones, have also broken platform barriers. The Mac App Store appears on all of Apple’s PC products, the Chrome app store in Google’s browser, and, increasingly, there are also apps on TV. Just this month, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts demonstrated the company’s new “xfinity tv” product at NCTA and highlighted apps as one of the central tenets of Comcast’s future television experience. (Full disclosure: I was part of the team at my company that designed xfinity tv.)

Instead, we need to shift our thinking from “mobile versus PC” to “device-specific views.” Consumers expect to have satisfying brand interactions on whatever device is convenient. That means we all have to begin with consumer research and understand who our target user is and how they tend to access content. If Facebook, for instance, is an important part of how you connect customers with your business, you need to consider all of the ways it can be accessed and be sure that if someone on Facebook wants to have a deeper experience with your brand, they’ll get a good payoff – no matter what device they’re using.

Google has been using HTML5 to make a compelling case for device-specific views. Rather than sending all users to the same place (risking device-related performance issues) or to totally different places, Google makes slight tweaks to the presentation template through style sheets. Gmail on the iPad or iPhone uses a few simple interface changes – bigger button size, use of multi-touch, and feature simplification – to make the experience feel customized and consistent. Interestingly, it’s so popular that folks are using a bunch of hacks so they can use the iPad view on a regular PC browser.

The iPad view for Gmail.

As evidence of the mobile web’s dominance, we’re told that, by 2015, more people will access web content from their mobile devices than via PC (Morgan Stanley); nearly 10 percent of e-commerce is estimated to come through mobile by the same year. Such statements assume that the PC platform won’t also evolve, and that consumers will face a stark choice: buying shoes or a car while sitting before a desktop mini tower versus comparison shopping airplane tickets while bungee-jumping. The reality is that consumers will use whatever device or platform that gets them what they want, when they want it, with the least hassle. Our job is to make those experiences as seamless as possible.

The mobile web is dead; long live the web.

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