Why mobile is the new web, and why you should care

I know that I may be a bit late to the party, but it took the purchase of my new iPod Touch to make me understand that as a person involved in developing for the web, I could no longer ignore the significance of the mobile web.

Because mobile really is the new web.

via flickr from Gaetan Lees photostream
1000 mobiles via flickr from Gaetan Lee's photostream

The Internet is about full-time connectivity

One of the main trends in the development of the Internet has been a drive to increase quality and quantity of connectivity. With mobile taking center stage, we are heading into an era where billions of people can theoretically be connected to the web at all times.

Let’s take a look at the progression of connectivity on the web:

  1. Phone line Internet: In the beginning (sounds like the bible), we would log on to the web via our phone lines. This limited our time on the web since: a) people could not call us while we were on line, or if they did, the internet connection would be broken, and b) the ISPs charged us by the minute, so we would get on, download our email, view a few sites, and get off.
  2. Broadband: When broadband was introduced, it meant that our computers could be connected to the web 24/7; charges became flat monthly rates, and our phone lines were freed up. This changed the way we approached all computer-related activities, and none of us today could imagine working in an environment without Internet. However, while our computers could be connected 24/7, if we were not by our computers our own connection to the web was broken.
  3. Cell phones: As cell phones became more widespread, we discovered a new way to connect to people who were not geographically near us, at all times. We could now be reached anywhere and everywhere, and we could communicate via regular phone calls or SMS messages. Some phones offered (and still offer) a crude form of Internet connectivity that allowed people a feature-limited connection to websites. The era of real 24/7 connectivity had begun.
  4. Blackberry (and friends): Email is one of the most social and widely used Internet applications, and it has become one of our primary methods of communication. So much communication takes place via email, that people needed a way to be able to access their email even when not by their computers. Enter BlackBerry. Although the BlackBerry offers additional PDA types of applications, like contacts, calendars and to-do lists, its main use is to send and receive email. People became so connected to their BlackBerry’s that terms like “CrackBerry” and “BlackBerry Widows” (women whose husbands spend all of their time engrossed in their BlackBerry) were created. By April 2008, BlackBerry subscribers had passed 14 million.
    But BlackBerry has two main limitations: a) Its goal is email access. With people using web-based email and other “cloud” applications, it is important that access to the web is easy and user-friendly, which is apparently not the case with BlackBerry; b) Use has been limited to the BlackBerry wireless networks and system: in order to use their email system, users must set up expensive systems for syncing their email. In addition, with the growing proliferation of wireless hotspots, people should not have to pay one provider for Internet access for their mobile device.
  5. The one and only iPhone (and iPod Touch): The introduction of the iPhone has changed everything, in my opinion, and other companies are scrambling to emulate Apple’s approach to the mobile web. With the iPhone, Apple has accomplished the following: a) A powerful computing device in the palm of your hand: the iPhone is more powerful than the computers we had about 10 years ago. More importantly, it is flexible and easy to use. Apple doesn’t try to dictate to you which email system you must use; you can use your online email, imap, pop, etc. With Wi-fi included and the Safari browser, you can easily view almost any web page. The screen is too small? Tap twice on the main column of text and it takes up your whole screen, or turn your device sideways for a wider view. The availability of iPhone apps means that the functionality of the iPhone is almost unlimited. (To see what I mean, browse around the app store to see what apps are out there. Beware: it’s really fun, and don’t let the word “store” fool you – there are many great free apps.)
    Often using an iPhone means paying extra fees to your cellphone provider. If you’re like me, and you feel like the cellular providers are ripping you off, get an iPod Touch. It’s basically the iPhone without the phone, so you get the fun (I mean productivity) without the extra fees.

We are now at the stage where Internet connectivity can realistically become 24/7 (or 24/6 for Shabbat observers). According to the Official Google Blog, there are 3.2 billion mobile subscribers in the world, and that number is expected to grow by at least a billion in the next few years. Today, mobile phones are more prevalent than cars. As mobile phone technology develops, more and more of those billions of phone users will gain high quality, user-friendly access to the web. Suddenly, 14 million BlackBerry subscribers doesn’t sound too hot, does it?

What this means for us

With billions of people around the world potentially accessing the web via their mobile, web developers will need to start taking mobiles into serious consideration:

  1. Mobile-compatible web sites: it is no longer enough to test your sites on Firefox, IE and Safari. Now, you must test your site for mobile devices to see how they look there.
  2. Mobile web versions: In addition to testing your site for mobile-compatibility, you may need to start considering developing special sites for mobile devices. Some sites that already have these types of mobile offerings are twitter, Gmail, Google Calendar, popurls, Netvibes, and facebook. Some are better than others, but the idea is the same: viewing a site on a mobile device is a different experience than on your 19″ LCD screen, and web developers need to take these needs into consideration.
  3. Mobile apps: Mobile compatible sites are good, but many sites (and third parties) are developing apps that you install on your mobile device to provide even better access to a site’s features from your mobile. For example, you can download mobile apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch for facebook and twitter. These apps offer different features than the mobile sites.
  4. Mobile email: If you send out HTML email campaigns, you should now be testing them for mobile compatibility. You may even want to start offering a mobile version of your emails, and allow people to indicate what type of email they prefer to receive. Winston Bowden, in a recent article on Marketing Profs, even suggested creating mobile version landing pages, and offering a link at the top of your emails saying something like “BlackBerry users, click here.”

The mobile web is here, and I think that we’re in for an exciting ride. So embrace it, and let’s see where it takes us!

This is the first in a series of posts on the mobile web. Future topics to be covered include:

  1. Reviews of mobile sites and apps.
  2. Reviews of companies developing mobile technologies.
  3. A look at the Israeli mobile industry.
  4. And more…so stay tuned!