Making the most of mobiles

The number of mobile phones being shipped worldwide is estimated to hit the two billion mark within the next five years. And one of the most sig­nificant features of the new gener­ation of phones is, of course, the convergence of voice, e-mail and Web communication in one handy device.

As memories of expensive, over-hyped and weedy WAP (wireless application protocol) browsers rapidly diminish, ensuring that Web data can be viewed across a range of small-screen appliances is more important than ever before.

Of course, mobile access is not restricted to phones: various Pocket and Palm PCs have been offering some form of Web browser for the best part of a decade, but the truth is that the PDA market is in decline compared to the rapidly expanding phone market.

Yet it is precisely this market that is creating the most problems. Whereas PDAs have quickly developed cut-down versions of popular browsers that can handle most well-designed Web pages, phones are often caught up in proprietary systems that offer their own difficulties for a designer.

Back to basics

It is because of such difficulties that the World Wide Web Consortium launched its MWI (Mobile Web Initiative, www.w3c.org/mobile) earlier this year. Tim Berners-Lee explains that "mobile access to the Web has been a second class experience for far too long". While demand for such access continues to grow, Web browsing from these devices has not become as easy as was anticipated - see Figure 1 and Figure 2.

Some problems associated with using mobile phones to browse the Web - as well as practical solutions - have been identified by groups associated with MWI, and include:

  • Keep data entry to a minimum. Obvious really, but typing in text on a numeric keypad is much harder than a qwerty keyboard.
  • Design for a smaller screen. Another obvious point - many sites are intended for 1024-pixel screens, not 120 pixels.
  • Don't waste data. As users tend to pay by the minute or kilobyte, this is a back-to-basics move for any Web developer - keep file sizes small and waste as little time as possible.
  • Don't count on upgrades. Processors and transfer speeds are much slower on mobile phones than PCs, and users cannot upgrade these functions.
  • Realise user expectations. Mobile users will have very different intentions when using the Web than someone with a PC and a broadband connection. The most obvious point is that they usually want a specific piece of information rather than the ability to browse.

As the Openwave developer network (http://developer.openwave.com) points out, many of these points are common sense. A little forethought can help you implement usable pages for most mobile users.

Simplicity is the key: such pages are accessed from the top down and it is better to design with lists rather than tables, which can slow down the device and display oddly in different browsers.

Nokia's Research Center (www.nokia.com) also offers some simple and practical advice. Keep your pages light and avoid large objects that need to be visible at a glance - or small text in images. When XHTML pages are converted to a narrow layout, too much information can be relegated to the foot of the screen.

The new browser wars

As well as usability issues, one key concern for the MWI is compatibility. Internet Explorer may still dominate the desktop, but on phones the main players include Java-based browsers from Nokia and Motorola, as well as the very popular Openwave browser for 3G phones.

Opera (which licenses its software to Nokia) has also recently launched Opera mini. This is an interesting application because a remote server processes a page before sending it to the phone, meaning that less- powerful devices should be able to access the Web.

For developers, this means that the number of toolkits that may be required is starting to proliferate. Micro­soft, for example, also offers an ASP.NET mobile controls package (formerly known as the Microsoft Mobile Internet Toolkit) that can pro­duce relevant XHTML and WML (wireless markup language) pages, and there are also relevant kits from Nokia and Openwave among others.

In general, XHTML appears to offer the best way forward, although many low-end or older phones still support WML only. This is where initiatives that shift the processing of code away from the phone and towards a remote server will become much more important in future, enabling Web access from as many mobile devices as possible.

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Jason Whittaker

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