The Mobile Web Part 1: Why Go Mobile?

The mobile web is growing fast. More and more people are browsing the web on the go, besides at home on their computer. Now is a good time to put together a mobile version of your site, so you don’t miss out on the extra eyes that could potentially read your site.

Today, the mobile web is split between two groups: iPhone/iPod Touch users and everybody else.

Plenty of people have phones now that can browse stripped-down WML pages, which is painful at best, impossible at worst. Then Apple came out with the iPhone and iPod Touch, finally creating a mobile device that’s actually bearable to surf the web with. (I recently bought an iPod Touch, and I have to say it’s awesome.)

iPhone and iPod Touch

As great as the iPhone/i’Touch is, it’s not perfect. It’s still much easier to navigate an iPhone-specific page than a normal page. I can read pretty much any page on the web with ease on my iPod Touch. Here I am reading a page on Pro Blog Design with the device:

Looks fairly easy to read, right? With a double-tap, you can make a portion of the page (in this case the content column) fill the screen for easy viewing. From there you can scroll in any direction by dragging your finger along the screen. Need more horizontal space? Just rotate the device, and the display will switch to landscape mode.

Easy enough, but iPhone-specific pages are even better. Here’s a screenshot of, which I believe to be the best-made iPhone site so far:

Looks fairly similar to the iPhone’s menu system, doesn’t it? It works much like they do also. Want to see if the latest episode of the Buzz Out Loud podcast is out? Tap “Podcast Central”; the menu will slide away, being replaced with a new one. Then tap “Buzz Out Loud” and check through the results to see if there’s a new one. If there is, you can even play it right then, streaming it over the webs. (You would be advised to only try streaming web audio over WiFi, and not over 3G or EDGE phone service.)

You can find pretty much everythig CNET has to offer through the iPhone (thanks to the wonders of databases). You can even search, to easily find a specific product review; you can read current tech news; you can see what the CNET bloggers are talking about today. It works well. Why? Everything is put together here in an easily navigable list that can be scrolled through with the flick of a finger. No zooming or horizontal panning necessary.

Which is better for your site? Should you have a version of your site for the iPhone and iPod Touch, or should you just let them use your normal site? It depends on three factors:

  1. Is your site’s design easy to navigate on the iPhone?
  2. What type of content do you have?
  3. Who is your audience?

To get a vague idea of what your site will look like on the iPhone, use a tool such as iPhoney or TestiPhone. You’ll get better results though if you try it out on an actual device (which is part of why I bought an iPod Touch). Borrow a friend’s for a couple of minutes, or walk into your local Apple store (or other consumer electronics store) and play with a demo model. (Apple stores pretty much always have open WiFi networks, so you’ll be able to test your site out there.)

For the second item on the list, just ask yourself a couple questions: Is my content time-oriented (such as news)? Would I want to check this site for new postings when I’m out and doing things?

As for your audience, think about the sort of people who use your site. (If you have no clue, run a reader survey.) Do they have any of Apple’s web-ready mobile devices? Are they g33ks? Are they the sort of people who want to keep up with online goings on no matter where they are?

In the end, the decision is up to you. Do you think it’s necessary to build an iPhone-specific version of your site? If you have ten minutes free (or a few hours, depending on how you want to go about it), go ahead and throw one together. The worst that can happen is no one will use it.

The Watered-Down Web: WML Sites

WML, or Wireless Markup Language, is a subset of XML. It’s like a stripped-down version of XHTML. There aren’t a lot of formatting options, and the syntax is very strict. A lot of phones out there can view sites formatted in WML, but it’s not a pleasant experience. I don’t happen to have a WAP device, but here’s an approximation of what it looks like:

I don’t happen to have a WML device, but simulators like this show a fairly good approximation of how they work. They don’t look all that great, you can’t have more than a couple of images, and navigation is a nightmare, relying on the phone’s keypad to scroll and activate links. You probably won’t find a device with a screen capable of showing more than ten lines of 25 characters either.

If you think your site would potentially be of value to users of WML devices, you could go ahead and put together a WML version, but keep in mind that most people with WML-capable phones don’t use them to browse the web, due to the painful navigation, slow speeds, and lack of support.


So, are you interested in putting together a mobile site? Stay tuned, part two of this series will be coming at you tomorrow.

  • Michael Martin

    Looks like you’re enjoying your new iPod Touch Matt! :DI hadn’t used the CNet site before, but I did after seeing you call it the best iPhone site out there. I think you’re right! Browsing around was seamless! (Though I did miss the pictures a little after a while, but I guess if I was on Edge/3G, having no pictures would just be another plus!)

  • Matt

    @Michael, Yeah I’m enjoying it! I knew what to expect, and Mobile Safari still blew me away with it’s ease of use. And I don’t have any problems with the device either (unlike every other MP3 player I’ve owned…). I think it was $300 well spent. A little on the expensive side, but it’s so much more than just a music player. The second time Apple has lived up to my lofty expectations for their products.

    Glad I’m not the only one who likes the CNET site. (They need to publicize it more.) I found another really cool iPhone site while working on the other posts in the series. It’s a designer site that really makes use of the iPhone’s hardware. Check back on the 28th and you’ll see what I mean… :D

  • Michael Martin

    I’ll check back. :DYeah, the Touch was pretty expensive, but I think it was worth it as well. I still haven’t paid for the 2.0 upgrade though, so the app store isn’t much use to me yet though.

  • Matt

    @Michael, Mine came with 2.1 pre-installed. :P I think you’ll probably want to upgrade the firmware sooner or later. There are some good apps starting to surface. There’s the Evernote app, WordPress for the iPhone, etc. Oh, and Myst is going to be available sometime. :D

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