.mobi — Kickstarting the Mobile Web, Or Holding It Back?

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The .mobi mobile-specific domain has been getting some attention this week since its sunrise period for registrations of industry-related companies began yesterday. Its backers contend a mobile-only domain is needed to push the mobile Web forward, but .mobi could end up doing more harm than good.

The Wall Street Journal’s got a typical mainstream press article on .mobi, accepting the marketing hype behind it without question. The party line behind the domain is that it will make mobile surfing easier and better for users — “Dot-mobi makes the Internet work on phones,” says the CEO of the company behind it — but this isn’t as true as they’d have you believe.

First, the domain .mobi itself isn’t particularly friendly for mobile devices, as plenty of people have pointed out. That’s something of a superficial complaint, but a relevant one nonetheless.

A bigger issue is the idea that somehow having a mobile-specific domain will make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for on their mobile device. This isn’t necessarily true — it just shifts the question from “is it mobile.x.com, or x.com/mobile, or wap.x.com?” to “do they have a .mobi site?” And that’s assuming that somebody is going to back up .mobi with a massive marketing and education campaign to make the general public aware of its existence.

Also, one of the stipulations of the domain is that registrants’ sites will follow certain rules, or they’ll be shut down. My first objection to this is that domain registrars shouldn’t be in the business of dictating content, as it sets a very dangerous precedent, but that’s an ideological argument for another time. One of these rules is that .mobi sites must serve an entry page coded in XHTML-MP, unless the site detects a user agent that calls for a different flavor of markup. One point is that if a content provider’s audience has a need for one type of markup — say, WAP — that’s what they should be able to use, user-agent sniffing or no. But you can’t help but feel that this implicit preference for XHTML-MP has some other motives when you read a quote from a Nokia spokesperson saying “People have to have new reasons to buy new phones. That’s what we hope to happen here,” about .mobi.

So if we’re going to fall back on user-agent sniffing, why bother with .mobi at all? We’d be better off encouraging sites to simply sniff the device with which users are browsing, then serving them relevant content — and all from existing, familiar addresses. Of course, smart companies and content providers are already doing this, without spending the extra money and resources on a .mobi site. I’m hard-pressed to think of an example where having a mobile-only site on a mobile-specific domain is preferable to sniffing user agents.

Here’s where the potential downside of .mobi comes in. The biggest risk is that site owners will buy a .mobi domain, throw up an XHTML-MP site, and leave it at that, thinking they’ve got this mobile thing sorted out — after all, they’ve got a site using .mobi, that thing that’s supposed to make the mobile Web happen. But that strategy is really no better than putting up a WAP site a hard-to-find address. They’re both strategies that are more exclusionary than exclusive, leaving the hard work up to the end user, when it could better be done on the side of the site.

The bottom line for mobile Web surfing is that all users need to be delivered the information they want, regardless of their device or browser, or what address a content provider decides to use. Best case scenario, this means a mobile user goes to X.com, and gets served up a page formatted for their device. If that technology isn’t in place, they should get the standard HTML page, and their browser should be able to handle it. Adding another address possibility that users have to try really doesn’t do anything to help. .mobi has highlighted some best practices for the mobile Web, and site owners should take these into consideration. But they can (and should) be implemented separately from a .mobi address. Why introduce more confusion for users and pass it off as making things better for them?

(As an aside, if .mobi expects people to take their message of enhancing mobile usability and improving the experience of mobile Web users, they should start by improving their desktop site, which is laden with annoying and unnecessary PDFs and Word documents, and links opening in new browser windows.)

[tags]mobile, mtld, .mobi, mobi, domains, TLDs, mobile web, usability[/tags]

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