Sunday, July 29, 2007

The dream of a device-independent web

In looking for something else, I found a post a few months back by Helen Keegan on the top mobile websites in the US and UK, which she cobbed from M:metrics.

She reports the top 10 sites from “metered smartphone users from a panel.” Hmmm... Not sure what biases that introduces, but at least some data is better than sheer guesswork.

But it was really interesting to compare the top sites. Google and Yahoo were the top two in the US, while in the UK, Google UK was #1, Google US was #6 and Yahoo was #10.

On the US side, the list broke down into two categories: desktop sites (Google, Yahoo, CNN, Weather, MySpace) and Microsoft sites (MSN, Microsoft, Live, I wonder if somehow they were metering Windows Mobile phones? What sites are default on a Windows Mobile phone? (Certainly Windows Mobile users do more browsing. I’m guessing that that Blackberry and Treo users are mainly e-mail users, and there are almost no Symbian users in the US). Of course, mobile data pricing has been ridiculous here so it’s almost all price-insensitve business users.

Meanwhile, in the UK side, there were a few Internet properties, including the BBC instead of CNN. But 4 of the top 7 were the major operators: Orange, Three, O2 and T-Mobile. So if it’s not a walled garden, then at least the default homepage (as on the desktop) is worth something.

What’s the point? If you’re a top site like the UK carriers, you know that you need to tailor your site for mobile users and try it out with the various form factors and browsers. Similarly, the big boys like Google, MS and Yahoo get enough traffic that it’s worth having a large mobile-specific development staff.

But what about the midtier, or the little guys? Yes, I’ve looked at my blog via my mobile phone (via Wi-Fi), but I don’t spend any time thinking about it.

As with any positive network effects market, there’s the chicken and egg problem: how do you justify the work to make a site support the quirks of the many mobile browsers without having the traffic to justify it? And what about sites that use rich web apps, like Google’s Ajax-enabled maps, or the Flash on YouTube? Very few cell phones have Flash, although FlashLite has caught on in Japan. Apple solved the problem by getting YouTube to port its content to H.264, but few device makers (or sites) are that big.

Users just want web pages to work. The ordinary desktop sites want a content creation/delivery system that works the same way on the desktop and the mobile. The mobile phone makers want access to all that content that (in most developed countries) is desktop-focused. But will it ever be realized? HTML was supposed to be device independent, but so many websites today were written by lazy programmers for a single browser.

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