A normal weeknight ends up with me sitting on my sofa and holding my Treo in hand while bouncing between RSS feeds and web pages, checking out the latest information. And while I am content with this aspect of browsing the Web to stay caught up, I have had several conversations in which people like the idea of browsing on a mobile device, but do not like the way that web sites look on the devices. They also complain that the wireless service providers make mobile web browsing too expensive.
I’ve recently read some articles that questioned the need for mobile-formatted web sites because there are mobile browsers powerful enough to emulate desktop browsers. I started to notice a trend in those articles and in some conversations that I have had: It’s not a question anymore of whether mobile browsing is doable, but of whether it has a chance to be viable.
By viable, I mean more than just something that is a novelty item. Sure, you can just browse web sites on a mobile device instead of firing up a full computer, but is it really something that is needed? And if it is needed at some levels, what can be improved about it?
Mobile Browsing to Serve a Specific Purpose
If there is one thing that I can say about browsing the Internet on a mobile device, I would say that it is less about actually “browsing” and much more about “seeking and finding.”
Normally, we go on online because we want to find something or be entertained. On a mobile device, the ability to be entertained can come from online means, but because of device size, battery constraints, and program constraints, it’s just usually better to keep entertainment simple.
Finding information, on the other hand, is something that the mobile Internet is perfect for. Whether it’s getting directions to someone’s house, or finding out the weather, or just getting email. Having the Internet on your mobile device opens the door for you to get information that you would usually reserve for 411 or sitting at home when there is nothing to do.
This is great. And the wealth of mobile-enabled web sites proves that people usually want information on the go. From mobile search engines (4info, Google, Yahoo, etc.) to news portals (NY Times, CNN, BBC, etc.), you can get something from your mobile device fairly quickly and then be on your way. You can even find something out in Wikipedia before the conversation changes subject, or that Scrabble game gets a little out of hand.
But these applications of mobile browsing are specific. Not too many people have the time to sit and just surf online, let alone want to on a mobile device. The browsers are not usually good enough for casual browsing, and many web sites that you want to see just do not adapt well for a mobile device’s screen and performance needs.
So What Needs to Improve?
One of the first things has to happen on the device/software side. The hardware within our mobile devices is more than good enough to be able display most Web content, but the browsers are not good enough.
Browsers such as Pocket Internet Explorer (temporarily excluding the version on Windows Mobile 6) and Blazer (Garnet OS) do a great job of rendering the content for the screen, but not necessarily in a usable means. Proxy-based browsers such as Opera Mini can work, but then you are once again getting back to that issue of not the same Web experience that you get on a desktop or laptop.
Nokia and Apple seem to have been great at stepping up to the plate with a browser that can show web sites just as they are on a desktop. These browsers uses finger and pointer/map gesturing to navigate the page. This introduces some scrolling, but also brings to light the other end of what needs to change – how web sites are being designed.
Many web sites are designed to just show you content, not to give you content in a means conductive to reading on any device. When sites are designed for readability and not presentation then the browser can better take the content and make it usable for the device and audience.
More Than a Novelty
And therein is the chance for mobile browsing to be more than just a sidebar conversation.
Fixing those issues relating to browsers and usable content will help drive people to want the mobile Web more. When more people want it, the pressure on carriers to push down the (extremely) high prices for mobile browsing will make data to be usable as it was intended – as a means to address issues relating to communicating with each other, rather than just a chance to show off a new toy.