Thursday, July 02, 2009

One Web Is Here

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase

So, that mobile web. First, called WAP with its WML and WMLScript, it was conceived to extend the very basic software that ran on phones a ta time the most sophisticated ones might have had grayscale screens, yet was to have worked equally well on simple pagers. Unfortunately, this system of using the data network to download pages and small application decks was labeled 'the mobile Web, and thus people expected the web on their mobile, and they didn't get it, and they ended up disappointed. Exit the first WAP technologies.

Then 'the mobile Web' was re-conceived to use XHTML and CSS with all kinds of extra switches called 'mobile profiles', which were all about leaving half of the styling out, and companies like Nokia pushed the idea that if we just use those technologies for the most important pages, we can make the Web, The One Web, easily scale up and down, without needing to split the web into one for big screens and a special mobile web. While at the same time sponsoring the idea of a whole top-level domain, .mobi, that was for special mobile websites only. Neither is working: I am seeing far more 'm.' or 'mobile.' sub-domains of .com sites than specialized .mobi sites, and few pages are designed to use the technologies to scale up and down well. It's not easy to create something that is both a general website for big screens and a highly individualized relevant experience on a mobile.

We are in hell, as web creators looking forward. Scaling both up and down is hard, it only works if your website has a totally simple proposition, or if you are willing to chuck 80% of your interactivity out when scaling down -- and your users will actually miss that 80%. Our tools, like static wireframes and IAs, don't help us, our clients mostly have visions only of the pretty pictures of rich sites and have a terrible time dealing with their brand having to not always be one huge whiz-bang festivity, and on top of all that we actually are chasing a moving target when we have to say how far to scale down, as phones get significantly better every 6 months and the upgrade cycle is 18 months. Look at Facebook's mobile site: all applications, groups, fan pages are either gone or hard to get to on its mobile site; there's just your news stream updates and the comments to them. Which is great on most phones now, but is actually leaving the high end phone users behind as too constrained and not interactive enough. Making something that works on the low end will look flat and boring on high-end phones.

Still, it has to be done. We have to go to One Web, with liquid layouts and sniffing what device is hitting your page and ready to switch from serving Big General Page to Personalized Small Chunk. And the reason is Twitter.

Twitter is a true One Web application: its proposition is so simple that it easily bridges mobile and Big Screen access. Twitter serves responses as easily to a web page as to an SMS as to a specialized desktop application, and users use all modalities, often switching seamlessly between them. It is also huge. Huge. Gigantic. Everyone's on it, and they are tweeting URLs to each other, URLs of other web pages they have seen. And their followers are as likely to click on those URLs from their computers as from their iPhones. And if that URL goes to your site, and your site can't adapt to the wild variety of devices people are using to get to you through a tweet, you are losing audience.

If you have a simple blog, you seriously need to check how your template looks on a Nokia E71 a BlackBerry Storm, an iPhone, a G1 (and yes, I need to do that myself for this blog). If you have a news or information site, sniff who is coming over and automatically redirect them to your mobile site for the same story (you have a mobile version of your site, right? I mean, you mostly serve text and pictures? They scale down beautifully). Get ready. Get a strategy.

Maybe we need to turn the process around: start out with sites that have really simple content suitable for low-end mobiles, and use AJAX and animation to bloom like flowers of interactivity when the site notices the screen is big enough, unfolding new modalities and content types to just the right size from very simple to mid-range to netbook to desktop to dual 30" cinema screens. It will require unlearning all we currently do for the average site on both the web and the mobile web, and using and creating all new tools, but it is time we tried. We need to do something. Because if our sites are hot they will be Tweeted, and people will try to get to them from their desktops and their pocket devices, and we will want to serve all those users. And as Twitter gets augmented or supplanted by more services around the globe with strong roots in phones and SMS, services that equally bridge access devices, it is only going to happen more, not less.

WAP failed because consumers didn't want two webs. They want One, everywhere, relevant, and accessible with what they are carrying.