Optimized Sites vs Optimizing Browsers

screen_cnn.pngOne thing that pretty much everybody seems to agree on is that browsing the Web on mobile phones isn’t what it should be, The disagreement comes in on what to do about it. One the one hand, you’ve got people pointing to the content as the problem, offering up the .mobi domain as a zone for mobile-specific content. On the other, you’ve got mobile browsers that aim to deliver a desktop-like experience, such as Opera, and Minimo — the release of a preview version of that this week having spawned this line of thought. (There are also proxy services to consider, like Google Mobile or AOL’s new mobile search, but I think they’re generally fairly frustrating and useless, so I’ll leave them out).

So, basically, what should change? Should sites adapt to the user, or should we all just get Opera? While I’m interested in finding the right answer from the publisher/content provider side as well, I’m going to focus on the user experience here. My primary concern (and frustration) as a user is being able to find the right content. Knowing where to go for mobile content can be a real problem, as it always has been. There was never a standard for where to find mobile-formatted content: wap.site.com. site.com/wap, site.com/mobile, mobile.site.com, even the ill-fated mmm.site com idea. That’s assuming the URL had any sense to it at all: ESPN’s mobile-formatted site sits at http://pocket.espn.go.com/ or http://proxy.espn.go.com/wireless/espn/html/pocketpc. How the hell am I supposed to find and/or remember that?

The .mobi idea is to have something like ESPN.mobi. That makes some sense, but how do I know which sites support it and which don’t? I guess I’m just supposed to check through trial and error. Using a browser like Opera’s got a simpler solution: I just punch in espn.com like on the desktop. The page loads, sure (though I get a memory full error), and the browsers got some nice technology to render pages for the small screen. But the result isn’t always real pretty.

The second issue is what content’s there. I’ve got certain things I’ve grown accustomed to seeing or using on certain sites when I access them from my desktop, and it’s not unreasonable — or at least it shouldn’t be — to expect them to be available on my mobile too. An advanced browser promises to give you everything on a site. With the mobile-specific content of .mobi, that’s less clear. This is what Tim Berners-Lee was talking about when he came out against .mobi because it promises to create device-specific areas of the web.

So I guess the score is 1-1, indicating the solution’s somewhere in the middle. While I think .mobi is a pretty stupid idea, it does highlight the need to make it easier for mobile users to find relevant content. But why not just have sites sniff what kind of browser or device is being used and change what’s displayed? On the other hand, just having a powerful HTML-capable browser is nice, but it creates a fair amount of usability issues.

The way forward: give me a browser that can handle whatever I throw at it, but make sites a little more friendly by realizing that I’m on a mobile device and don’t have a 1600×1200 display. Design the mobile site so it’s easier to use, but don’t cut out services and content I can access on the desktop. Don’t corral me over on one small part of the Internet, either — walling me into a garden will just annoy me.

Neither having a great HTML browser on a phone nor having a bastardized “mobile-optimized” site alone is the ideal solution, and asking for both isn’t unreasonable. But until phone vendors and carriers on one side make browsers a real priority and content providers on the other side begin to understand and respect mobile users, the mobile Net will continue to suffer by not meeting average Joe Users’ expectations of the Web.

Heh, noticed just as I was publishing that I’m not the only person thinking along these lines today — Russell Beattie’s got a nice post on reformatting vs. rethinking for mobile.

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