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Can we all admit that ‘Mobile Web’ is total rubbish?

Long time SMS Text News and Mobile Industry Review columnist, Malcolm Murphy, is back! And he’s taking no prisoners with his first contribution to MIR 3.0: The mobile web is getting it in the neck. Read on to see if you agree.

Over to you, Malcolm:

– – – – –

How do you access data/content on the go?  Is it through the browser on your phone?  Or through separate applications?  Recently, I’ve noticed that I don’t do “mobile browsing” any more; 90% or more of the data I consume is via other applications, e.g. the Gmail mobile app.  A quick straw poll of a few friends suggested that it’s not just me, and it reminded me of something from a few years ago.  I was on a panel at a mobile messaging conference, and a question came in from the audience: since applications can easily be delivered via the browser on the desktop, surely the same will happen in mobile, so all we need on the mobile device is a browser?

My answer was no – there is such a big gap between the capabilities of desktop browsers and mobile browsers that it’s not feasible.  And browser apps are resource hungry; just look at the load on a PC when you fire up Gmail if you don’t believe me.

Of course, there are a couple of vested interests to declare.  Firstly, I was working for a company that was promoting mobile messaging apps, so I was hardly going to say anything else, was I?  Secondly, the questioner worked for a mobile operator, and mobile operators are desperate to hear the answer that the browser can do everything, because it simplifies their lives enormously.

The question is still relevant today, and not only do I still stand by my original answer, I don’t even think mobile browsing is an enjoyable pastime!  To paraphrase Blur, Mobile Web is Rubbish.

By rubbish, I mean it’s frustratingly slow, although that’s not the real problem.  The real problem is that even when web pages do load, it’s such a hit and miss affair whether they will render correctly on my mobile screen that I frequently wish I hadn’t bothered.  And if the site in question is using Flash or funky Javascript or whatever, then you can forget it.

The industry knows this, of course.  That’s why Vodafone have deployed technology from Novarra, it’s why T-Mobile’s web and walk includes the Opera browser, and it’s why the chaps at Skyfire have managed to raise nearly $18m to build a better browser.

Even with a well designed website, there are generally better options.  Here’s a simple example: train times.  Now, I love wap.kizoom.co.uk, and have done since it was launched.  But, if I want train information, I have three choices: call National Rail Enquiries, text National Rail Enquiries, or try the mobile web.  Texting is both quickest and most convenient.  Try it for yourself, if you don’t believe me.  It’s also the most expensive 🙁 so I do still use the website.  But if you took cost out of the equation, the web wouldn’t come close.

Most websites aren’t designed with mobile in mind, and when they are I can’t be arsed to remember if I a particular site has a mobile version, or if it does whether I need to visit “m.website.com” or “website.mobi” or “www.website.com/mobile” to get the right version.  Or to remember that website ‘A’ renders fine in the standard browser, but website ‘B’ works much better in Skyfire.  So if you are one of the people doing the content on the operator portals, I salute you, because apart from the fruits of your labour, there isn’t much out there.

So I’m reduced to using applications to get my content.  My IM, facebook, football and cricket scores, twitter and RSS needs are all served by non-browser applications on my phone.  I don’t browse the web on my phone, because it’s not worth the effort.

Aha, you say, but what about the iPhone?  That’s the future, that’s where the mobile web is at.

Sorry, no.

First off, the iPhone is a niche device.  And even if it were mainstream, web browsing isn’t the method of choice on the iPhone.  Look at the twitter updates from your iPhone enabled followees.  They’re all using one of a bazillion twitter apps for iPhone.  Same for LinkedIn.  And Facebook.  Facebook have an iPhone specific site, yet they still developed an iPhone app. Why?  Because it gives a better result.

Browsers on handsets will get better.  That’s what the iPhone shows us.  But PCs will always have larger screens and be more powerful than phones, so the mobile web will always lag behind.  It may improve, but for now, it’s rubbish.

37 replies on “Can we all admit that ‘Mobile Web’ is total rubbish?”

Interesting read, but I disagree strongly 🙂

You are right that a lot applications tend to be used as native apps… I discovered your blog on my Android Twitterride application… but it opened in my browser… In fact I do the same on my desktop, using Tweetdeck and read content in my browser… So not much difference between mobile and desktop.
You would not make each website an application?

Second remark, you are right again that surfing the web is painful because of non-mobile friendly sites… But still this is not the limitation of the mobile web, it's just a limitation in resources and knowledge to create this mobile experience for the mobile browser. We could all think of several solutions to redirect users to mobile friendly sites and design these sites in a way that:
– you keep monetizing by using mobile advertising (do I hear someone laughing?)
– involve the user by allowing easy participation
– attract the user by adding relevant content that is easy to find (non horizontal scrolls)
– …

Thirdly, mobile web is becoming more then a browser experience, it is about adopting web standards to build applications. No matter where these web applications run, as long as they are developed using some standard interfaces / languages (like html, css, javascript)… But now I am getting to technical/geeky.

Side note, I work for a mobile web company (http://siruna.com) and we mobilize websites as a business, so I am biased too. Your post is right on and addresses the mobile web issues! But we see improvement such as availability of location in browsers and willingness of customers to invest in a mobile website.

Looking forward to read more.

A point I (tried to) acknowledge in the article. The iPhone has a nice browser. I like using the iPhone browser. But

(a) that only covers off the millionth of a percent of phone users who have iPhones
(b) it's preferable to use an app, where one exists (LinkedIn, twitter, facebook, etc.)

Hey twom,

I think we're actually agreeing quite a lot here. There is a bit of semantics going on – by “mobile web” I do mean “using the mobile browser on my phone” and I think you're saying the definition should be broader. I'm not sure where your “web applications” site; they either run in the browser or they don't?

Where we disagree is that I don't think you can say that the shortage of non mobile friendly sites is not a limitation of the mobile web. Or more importantly, I don't think it matters whether it is or not. The reality is that it's a lottery going to any given web site on your mobile phone. So the experience is rubbish.

Lots of ways this could be fixed, including custom mobile site development, which I think is what siruna do? Which kind of implies that there's a problem that needs to be fixed?

I'm 50:50 on this.
If you find a decent mobile site and bookmark it there's no problem using the browser but obviously, finding the good mobile sites in the first place is a bit hit and miss.

On the other hand, I've been comparing a couple of Google Analytics Android apps recently and there's no doubt the app experience is wayyy better than the browser one since the GA web site uses Flash graphs/widgets and of course it's not formatted for a 320×480 screen. As far as I can tell there's no mobile version of the GA site which makes the apps particularly handy.

Apps are just as hit and miss as web browsing though – eg: the Facebook app and mobile site are both complete rubbish, far better to force the iPhone to view the full-fat Facebook web page (same with the BBC site as well).

You're right about Twitter though, but that's because the Twitter website is rubbish in comparison to TweetDeck (and others), but that's to do with functions and they could easily incorporate that into a web page.

Agree that Flash is still a pain in the arse (and I'm a designer so I like Flash) as the iPhone (and I suspect other phones / browsers) still won't play nicely with it and appears to have no intention of doing so anytime soon.

I think the real problem is in two parts:

1. data speed to actually download the pages (which will only get faster) and
2. browser capability

…improving both would then get rid of the whole mobile website nonsense – a good browser should be capable of rendering the page quickly, easily and faithfully with no need of a separate graphically sparse and visually boring mobile version with the aesthetics of Teletext.

In some ways, this discussion will always have issues with semantics. It is not the mobile web that is rubbish, rather it is the current content which is tailored for specific mobile phones and specific mobile browsers which is “disappointing”. Having access to web sites which have been designed specifically for a PC are always likely to disappoint any user. This does not however make the mobile web bad. The browser is a great way of accessing content and services across multiple platforms and this is especially the case for the mobile phone. Widgets are also a great way of pulling specific web content together in a way which is very suitable for a mobile phone screen. The key advantage again is the fact that they will work across different platforms.

If we take a step forward a couple of years to a time where we have web runtimes across many phones including some low end devices. Why wouldn't a developer think of using the “web platform” as the best way of getting a service to a customer? Initiatives such as BONDI which open up some of the mobile phone features like messaging, contacts and calendar will only make this more likely.

So, I am not disagreeing that current content is mainly targeted at PC users. Neither am I saying that the “mobile web” is the only way forward. However, we have to be careful about assuming that users just want fancy websites. Users on the move actually want information quickly, accurately and without huge overheads. The difficulty with providing web services on a mobile phone is that the service needs to support lots of different types of users. But, on the positive side, with the huge numbber of web developers, I see a very rosy future for web applications (either through the mobile browser or as a widget) in the future.

“PCs will always have larger screens and be more powerful than phones” … absolutely true, but that's making a mobile phone seem like it's a lesser device. I'd argue it's a **different** device with unique strengths. Even my low-end Sony Ericsson is a camera, a video camera, is location-aware, is a micropayment device, sends email and text messages, plays music and videos … oh, and it makes calls too — all while I'm out and about.

Helping developers think about these strengths and creating mobile sites that will work on practically all handsets — and overcome the hinderances to adoption that you've encountered, Malcolm — is the whole reason we created our free http://mobiForge.com forum as well as our free http://mobiThinking.com forum for marketers.

On a parallel front, given the poor economics of app building for a big world of different handsets, we're firm believers that browser-based mobile sites will continue to blossom and thrive. Note this quote today from BBC News, “Google's engineering vice president Vic Gundotra told the conference that the application store trend is just a fad and that the focus will shift to powerful browsers as the main mechanism for delivering [mobile] services.”

And dotMobi developed — and ICANN approved — the .mobi domain to ensure that businesses have a uniform way to name — and consumers have a uniform way to identify — mobile Web sites rather than deal with the confusion that sometimes exists with mobile Web naming conventions.

Malcolm is right, the web on mobiles is frequently rubbish. But the problems are fixable and they are being worked. There's a browser war going on between Apple, Google, Opera and Nokia that is giving us better, faster browsers. The rise of mobile browsing (according to Tomi Ahonen, mobile browser users now outnumber users of desktop browsers) has not gone unnoticed by mainstream web developers, designers and publishers. Most mainstream sites now have some sort of (usually rubbish) mobile presence. That too will improve with experience and competition between publishers.

Malcolm is also right that for services and sites that one visits frequently, particularly highly interactive ones like email, Facebook or Twitter; an app does often provide a better user experience on mobile than a the browser.

However accessing general web content using single purpose applications is not scalable. There are over 150 million web sites in the world. Most of the web content I consume on my phones isn't available in an app format and probably never will be. The web is huge and diverse. There can never be enough single purpose apps to cover it all and if there were they wouldn't fit on my phone. The web is about hyper-linking and that needs a browser. The real growth in mobile data adoption will be web browser based.

Most web sites are in insensitive to mobile browsers. You don't need a separate mobile version of a site or a specific URL – like a new man you just need to be sensitive when that mobile device connects. This means don't spew all that graphic content to the mobile – just send the relevant, most pertinent items.
I've seen many a high budget email marketing campaign go down the pan when the great click through rate is followed by nothing! – because the email was picked up on a mobile device, the links were 'clicked' and the web experience was worse than rubbish.
Take a look at the automatic rendering tools around – I'd recommend Wapple.net as a start – and build one site for both fixed & mobile experiences.
cheers A

I agree that mobile devices are different. And in some way, that's the point: the web that's targeted at PCs isn't going to work on different devices. Google have more than a vested interest in persuading us that browsers are the way forward, so you have to take their comments in context. And yet, how do I access my Google mail on my device? Via the gmail mobile app. Hmm….

ICANN may have approved the .mobi domain for mobile, but there is still much debate about whether or not that is the best solution, and confusion still runs rampant. Both facebook and google seem to have .mobi registered but redirect to .com, and both promote m.****.com rather than ****.mobi

Whatever the reason, I don't know how in general whether there is a mobile optimised version of a site i want to go to, and if there is, what its address is.

I have always found Kizoom the easiest mobile way of getting my rail information and have done for years. Seems to have been hobbled by Network Rail recently withdrawing the real time data though. I guess that's just anecdotal but really I do disagree. As a (power) user the mobile web does me just fine. Google agree (yes I know that, as you say below, they have their own agenda) and the economics of developing an “App” for so many different platforms agrees also.

Interesting but I don't think the question for mobile web is: Can all websites be rendered on my phone?
I think the question is: Can the websites I want when I'm mobile be rendered on my phone?
Yes to dabr.co.uk , yes to plurk.com/m , both of which I have bookmarked so I don't have to remember them. (If I hadn't bookmarked them, I'd be relying on their web designers to read my device's user agent strings and redirect me.)

Coincidentally, I also wrote a blog post about it recently
The Dave Gap. Mary is hot. Drunk On A Bus. Three scenarios for mobilising on-line social networks http://post.ly/1Ssh

I didn't focus on the mobile web as such. We don't need the mobile web, in the same way that we don't need electricity.

To the people writing mobile operator portals, please stop. I'll decide which websites are my favourites, thank you.

I maintain that kizoom is the exception in terms of its quality, and still it is easier and quicker to use the text service. The main reason I still use kizoom is price.

Agree totally about the economics, and this is the #1 thing that hampers any company trying to sell app-based solutions to operators.

Interesting observation about google, is that they are very good in doing the “app” work server side.

You are right, most of the mobile web is total rubbish.

Some of us out here in innovation-land are working on making it better. Please go on your mobile device, put http://www.whenimmobile.com in the web browser address bar, and take a look at several examples (in the Portfolio section) of the mobile web user experience as it should be.

Thanks for your attention.

Best,
Jonathan Thaler
Founder, When I'm Mobile
http://www.whenimmobile.com

You are right, most of the mobile web is total rubbish.

Some of us out here in innovation-land are working on making it better. Please go on your mobile device, put http://www.whenimmobile.com in the web browser address bar, and take a look at several examples (in the Portfolio section) of the mobile web user experience as it should be.

Thanks for your attention.

Best,
Jonathan Thaler
Founder, When I'm Mobile
http://www.whenimmobile.com

I disagree with apps being the future of mobile internet. As you mentioned, companies like Novarra are making the internet as much like a PC-experience as possible and they are constantly innovating their services to achieve this goal.

If you want to gain a better idea of how mobile users are using their phone, check out this link below. The press release summarizes an extensive study that Novarra did on mobile internet users.

http://www.novarra.com/news/press-releases/nova

Also, if you're interested in obtaining the full document PDF of the study, make a request to Novarra by clicking on the link below:

http://www.novarra.com/contact

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