Are you prepared to negotiate the mobile Internet challenge?

Here is an overview of what web developers will have to face when they begin negotiating the mobile internet challenge.

A few years ago when I won my first engagement that required us to build a mobile interface, my team of web designers was very excited. They congratulated me and thanked me for giving them this wonderful opportunity to do something that was so cutting edge (in those days) and that would give them something to be proud of. As the designing began although, I could see the excitement gradually diminishing.

The client was a South Asian media giant and wanted his website to be accessible over all kinds of mobile phones. He sent us a list of mobile phones that were widely in use in his part of the world. As we began collecting the display specifications for these devices, the then seemingly exciting challenge began crystallizing into a nearly insurmountable problem.

Some of these phones could read only WML. Others could read XHTML but a few of these had a very low resolution. Some had larger resolutions but had default settings that forbade background images from rendering on a page. Others supported only a limited number of colors. The client had very clearly articulated his requirement. He wanted the website to render on each phone in such a way that it looked hand crafted for that cell phone. This meant that on none of the devices should the portal require horizontal scroll bars, the look and feel should be consistent across all devices, the design should be compatible with all factory settings etc.

It took my design team quite a bit of time and effort to be able to meet these requirements. Now after doing a few more projects for the mobile world, things have slowly but surely begun falling into place. In my blog posts out here I want to share a few of my experiences and the approaches that we had developed over time to negotiate the mobile challenge. I would also like to hear about the challenges that some of you out there might have faced while designing mobile-friendly portals and web pages. Let me initiate this series by stating some of the problems that I have come across while designing mobile friendly portals.

  • With the introduction of 3G and 4G networks, mobile devices are all set to become the primary device for consuming web content.
  • Most clients trying to put up a portal today want a Dual-Delivery platform. They want the portal to be accessible over a regular browser as well as over mobile devices.
  • They want the websites to render upon all devices very efficiently, i.e., without horizontal scroll bars, with a consistent look and feel.
  • They do not want multiple versions of the portal for each phone type since that could cause them maintenance issues at a later stage.
  • They want the pages to load quickly on all mobile browsers.
  • New mobile models continue to flood the markets.
  • Old models continue to be relevant and hog enough of a market share to command due attention while designing a website.
  • Many of these phones do not support javascript.
  • Some of these can only read WML.
  • Touch phones are now flooding the market. Our fingers continue to be as thick as ever. Web pages for these phones have to be designed differently with thicker buttons and links so as to make them touch friendly.
  • Most of the touch phones do not support the Mouseover events.
  • Some of the phones have factory settings that ignore background images.
  • Screen real-estate on a cell phone is scarce and while the portal owners are averse to the idea of a horizontal scroll bar, they are also very particular about the fact that on larger screens there should be no white space on the right side. The page is expected to scale up to occupy the full width of the screens.
  • Many of the touch phones today have a swivel feature i.e. when the user holds the phone horizontally or vertically the display also swivels along with it.

Despite these challenges and problems, the most important thing to remember is that the Mobile Web-surfers are here to stay. Also unlike the Internet Explorer vs. Netscape war some years back, this Mobile browser war is nowhere close to throwing up a clear winner anytime soon. So the challenge created by the discrepant screen sizes, resolutions and factory settings is here to stay and will have to be tackled.

In my experience, tackling all these issues requires a few changes to the conventional SDLC as well as to the scoping approaches. Also the web designers have to now think afresh on the design aspect to be able to meet client requirements in this domain.

In my upcoming blog posts I will discuss the processes, approaches and techniques that we have evolved to be able to meet this challenge. Meanwhile, I am hoping that all you readers out there would contribute your opinions, approaches and views on how you have negotiated or plan to negotiate this challenge.