Mobile Stylesheets

Filed under: mobile,opinion,web development — jaydublu @ 2:41 pm

In an article on A List Apart ‘Return of the Mobile Stylesheet‘, Dominique Hazaël-Massieux starts by reviewing the ‘ideal’ approach to making a site mobile friendly:

Ideally, site authors would be able to meet the growing demand for a quality mobile experience without changing a line of code. But the reality is that a site designed specifically with mobility in mind will always provide a much better user experience to mobile users, even when they are equipped with the device du jour. It’s not merely a question of network costs and delays or memory and CPU limitations. Rather, the mobile experience merits its own design, as discussed in a growing body of literature, including the W3C’s very own Mobile Web Best Practices, released in July 2008 as a W3C Recommendation. The formula for a mobile experience provided by Little Springs Design sums up the goal nicely: mobilize, don’t miniaturize. Mobile users operate in a very different usage context than PC users, and providing them with an experience customized to their needs is likely to be the best service you can offer to them.

But then he goes on to describe “a first step toward mobile design that uses CSS to maximize interoperability across platforms” asserting that “by starting simple, you can provide a decent initial experience, solicit user feedback, and iterate toward a more mobile-friendly design.

Shame – because the likelihood is that if you put all your effort into a CSS solution, which is sub-optimal (in my view) because devices still have to load bloated code, and you probably end up with compromises for bot mobile and ‘normal’ browsers amongst other reasons, you’re much less likely to make the bigger step of producing a version of the site optimised for the mobile experience.

Many platforms make it quite simple to do this – there are mobile modules and plugins I’ve seen (and used) for WordPress, Drupal etc. – if you’ve got server side logic, and preferably some form of content management / delivery system going on, it should be not much more than switching to a simpler theme for your presentation when a mobile device is detected.

But then that’s easy for me to say, because I still haven’t done it in anger to any large extent (yet).

Mobile device detection

Filed under: mobile,web development — jaydublu @ 7:36 pm

mf-xmas.jpgIs Christmas a time for blog posting?

Certainly a chance to review the year, and catch up on things that have been missed. I’ve been lax in not keeping up with progress in mobile content delivery for instance, but it’s not out of choice.

Scanning some emails and posts just now I came across a summary of what’s been hapenning over at the mobiForge (ex dev.mobi) and I feel unbearable guilt that I haven’t tried their DeviceAtlas yet. But I do note with some satisafction that in one article they’re plugging the use of a lightwieght device detection function from  Andy Moore that seems to do a similar thing (but no doubt much better) to what I was playing with a couple of years back.

New Years resolution – make the time to keep up with this stuff, ‘cos it interests me and I’ll need it one day!  (see Perl xkcd strip!)

DeviceAtlas

Filed under: mobile — jaydublu @ 1:13 pm

So dotMobi have finally launched their mobile device database offering as discussed by Andrea Trassati at the Future of Mobile event a few months back.

Called DeviceAtlas, it claims ‘to become the world’s most comprehensive source of mobile device information.’

Other than a slightly daunting looking licencing model, and potentially more data contributed directly from manufacturers, I don’t see much of a difference from WURFL, and that’s a project I really like.

Of course I should give the thing a go first to make an informed decision, and that’s something I hope to do in the near future.

Does ‘one web’ mean ‘one website’?

Filed under: mobile,opinion,web development — jaydublu @ 5:05 pm

Ongoing discussions with a colleague about the most appropriate way to deliver websites that are mobile friendly, led him to send me a link to a blog posting in the Opera Community: ‘Open Standards, One Web, and Opera‘. He reckons this demonstrates his view that you should build a standards compliant site, and leave it to standards compliant browsers to adapt. For the record my view is that whilst this approach may work most of the time, better experience can be given to the visitor if you tailor the code being delivered by the server to suit device capabilities.

Summarising the main argument of the piece:

We believe very strongly in 2 main principles:

  1. One Web — first coined by the W3C, the one Web principle is what it implies — there should be one single Web that can be accessed by any Web—enabled device, not different content for different devices — this is unsustainable, and a maintenance nightmare — having to maintain several versions of the same content can be really frustrating. The “one Web” is made possible by…
  2. Open standards. Technologies such as CSS and HTML are open — they are free for anyone to use and get involved in the evolution of, and because they are also standards, pages created using them should be viewable on any device by anybody, as long as user agent vendors follow the standards. Most vendors, including ourselves, are making a pretty good job of this these days, mostly (hint — there is still a bloated giant out there that has trouble with standards, despite controlling over 70% of the browser market. We won’t name any names…) Proprietary standards, that is, standards that are not free for anyone to use and lock you in to having to use a single/few company’s products, are bad for the one Web, and are often inaccessible (that is, not usable by users with disabilities) and expensive to develop with.

I can’t and won’t argue against either point – I believe in them too, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with the implication that ‘one web’ implies ‘one website’ – i.e. one set of code that gets delivered to all devices.

That’s getting a bit close to ‘lowest common denominator’ where you don’t use particular techniques or features if not supported by all devices you’re building for, or another risk is that you’re abandoning a chunk of your audience for the sin of not using a standards compliant browser (that could be 90%+ of your potential audience!)

Where in those two principles does it say you can’t adapt code a bit to suit device capabilities – and before I get screamed at for suggesting multiple sites / thousands of separate templates / layouts etc. note the phrase ‘a bit’ – and use some of the power going spare in our modern day servers? A pragmatic approach rather than dogmatic.

‘One Web’ is about content – reading what the W3C say about One Web in their Mobile Web Best Practices:

“One Web means making, as far as is reasonable, the same information and services available to users irrespective of the device they are using. However, it does not mean that exactly the same information is available in exactly the same representation across all devices. The context of mobile use, device capability variations, bandwidth issues and mobile network capabilities all affect the representation.”

i.e. The content should be the same, but the way it’s being presented could be adapted to suit the device.

Not all devices / browsers are equal – some have very special needs, particularly mobile ones. Even if they can render full standards compliant web pages, there are problems of bandwidth and memory. Mobile devices will perform better with nice light pages, whereas Desktop users are perfectly happy with big bloated ones.

Screen size and navigation – yes I love the iPhone’s zooming, but at the end of the day when you start to read a site or try and use the navigation, the screen is only 320×480 pixels, and a fat finger is less precise that a mouse. So the likelihood is that a navigation system that works well at 1024×768 with a mouse, might be a bit fiddly on an iPhone, let alone a mobile using a simulated mouse or keys, on the other hand something simple enough for a mobile might be really tame on a Desktop.

But which standard? xhtml is getting wider support within higher spec phones now, but it’s still widely regarded that XHTML-MP is supported by the overwhelming majority of mobile browsers. And what about old phones that prefer WML? Just because you’re sending different markup to different devices doesn’t mean that the markup used won’t be standards compliant.

In summary – ‘one web‘ – yes. ‘Use standards‘ – yes. But adapt the output a bit to better match device capabilities. If my understanding is right that’s also what the W3C is saying.

WURFL DB

Filed under: mobile — jaydublu @ 3:21 pm

In Luca Passani’s post on wmlporgramming he announces the launch of WURFL DB:

“People of WURFL, it’s with great pleasure that I announce the WURFL public interface (AKA WURFLDB) … The basic idea is that everyone will be able to look at the latest WURFLdata about specific devices, while some will also be able to contribute and download a newer WURFL right away.”

As well as being a browsable interface to the latest WURFL data, and the new home of the latest xml file, there’s also the ability to become a contributor to the database.

Luca has done a grand job bringing it this far, but a job of this scope is more than one man can do alone, and releasing this tool to allow the chore to be spread about the community has to be a good thing.

If I feel I can do anything useful, I’m in!

Bye-bye handheld stylesheets?

Filed under: mobile,opinion,web development — jaydublu @ 5:55 pm

opera.jpgFirst Safari mobile on the iPhone, now Opera Mini 4, it would seem that the trend for mobile browsers is to pretend they’re a Desktop, and to persuade sites not to dumb down the presentation enabling the browser to wow us with zooming etc. they’re ignoring handheld stylesheets. However, new CSS3 features like media queries which allow different stylesheets to be included based on for example screen size.

As discussed on Unintentionally Blank a few weeks back, the reasoning seems to be to save the users from the developers who apparently all want to dish up ‘dumbed down’ sites for mobile devices.

But surely we all agree that mobile devices are not desktop devices – you use them in different contexts and have different requirements. Whilst I appreciate that not all mobile users want a dumbed down site, let’s have choice rather than imposition. And taking away tools that can have a positive benefit if used properly is removing choice.

iPod Touch

Filed under: mobile,review — jaydublu @ 6:31 pm

I finally got my hands on the iPod Touch I got the team for R&D – cheaper than an iPhone – and have spent a bit of time with it myself.

First thing I should say is that dissapointingly I find I really, really like it – it’s a stunning device that’s hard to fault; at least inital impressions are that way.

It’s a perfect size and weight, screen is clear and bright, and as for the ‘touch’ user interface – well what can I say other than ‘wow!‘?

I’ve played a bit with the music and video playing capabilities, and they’re just stunning, but most of my attention has been, unsurprising, on the browser.

Despite my initial shock that the thing won’t accept xhtml-mp markup, so although it is a mobile device you can’t treat it as such (at least not the way I’d like to with a custome xhtml-mp view of a site) I can see a way past that as it makes a pretty fair stab at rendering the full site. With the zooming feature – the double tapping is just genius – and wifi connectivity meaning the bandwidth isn’t much of an issue, it really is feasible to browse most sites in the full fat version without needing a slimmed down markup.

But, if the site hasn’t been sympathetically designed – and the one big irritant is lines of text that are too long to be able to read in one screenfull so you have to keep scrolling backwards and forwards – it’s easy to get less than satisfied. And if you’re on an iPhone with limited (and expensive) bandwidth optimised graphics etc. wuold be a big bonus. And having seen sites specifically designed for the iPhone e.g. iphone.facebook.com – they’re just so much nicer to use than the full one.

I’m working on a concept proving site at the moment from first principles, using tera-wurfl for device detection, and Smarty templates to deliver different styling of the same content to different devices. I’ve not yet settled on my preferred approach but when I do I’ll publish it somewhere.

One thing is for certain – I’m now more comfortable with the idea that you don’t treat iPhone (or iPod Touch) the same as a ‘normal’ phone, but don’t think you should ignore it either and feed it a site designed for big screens.

Future of Mobile

Filed under: mobile,review — jaydublu @ 6:44 pm

Future of Mobile, London IMAX Cinema, 14th November 2007

The fact that I didn’t have a laptop with me is partly why this post is a bit late, the other is how long it’s taken me to sort out my longhand scribbled notes. So the fact that I didn’t blog from my phone on the train on the way home may indicate the Future of Mobile is ‘not yet’

Hats off to Ryan and all at Carsonified for another excellent conference – I feel privileged to be able to attend these things in my home country rather than having to read about happenings in the States. It was a thought provoking and informative, if long day.

So what did I ‘take home’?

One Web – the future of te Internet is mobile. Adapt the experience to exploit device capabilities maintaining thematic consistency across all the various ‘screens’ (PC / mobile / TV etc.)

Standards are crucial – but some people are stubbornly doing their own thing.

iPhone will revolutionise the market – not just because of the UI / design, but because it’s setting new consumer expectations of mobile devices as more than a phone, and challenging the established mobile business model (carriers / operators control)

Convergence is an assumption – actual usage is multiple specific devices for specific tasks (e.g. phone, Blackberry, satnav each with a SIM) and different people want different things maintaining fragmentation.

Platforms are maturing – including the upcoming Open Handset Alliance. Diverse but maturing.

Exploit device potential – rich user experience not lowest common denominator – media query / WURFL / W3C core vocabulary. Mobile web experience is still poor ‘like kissing a girl who’s leaning away from you’ (Tony Fish)

Content may be King but context rules – location based services still unjustified hype, mobile search results are poor, massive security / privacy concerns.

But overriding all of that – due to the sheer scale of the market (more than the whole population of China) the potential for a successful application is massive.

As John Connor said: ‘I can’t help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set.

It’s all to play for!

What the Mobile Web needs to succeed

Filed under: mobile,opinion — jaydublu @ 8:38 pm

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking on the theme of Mobile Web in anticipation for the Future of Mobile event this week. This has included trying for a few weeks now to get into ‘Mobile Web 2.0’ by Ajit Jankar and Tony Fish.

I’ve been finding it a little hard going, but perhaps I’m not target audience – the bit I’ve managed to get through so far has mostly been about semantics and business.

But there have been a couple of observations I’ve found interesting – the assertion that ‘capturing content at the point of inspiration‘ will be one of the main drivers of the Mobile Web 2.0, and the idea of mobile handsets as just one of the ‘screens’ we use to interact with the web as a whole – others being broadcast screens e.g. TVs which we tend to sit and watch, and interactive screens e.g. PCs which have probably the ultimate user interface, and can be used to configyre the ‘big screen’.

This comes back to their first point that:

‘Mobile Web 2.0 devices will drive the capture of imagination. The information is not just pictures – but rather a range of things like: calendars (the things you need to remember); notes and reminders (viewpoints and ideas that you want to work on later); news (citizen’s reporting) etc. These will then be stored in your private web space.’

I get the idea, and can see it happenning one day, but I don’t think we’re ready yet. Despite the coming of Facebook and other ‘online personality’ applications, we haven’t quite widely adopted the ‘private web space’. Even writing this blog I have not been tempted to use my phone to capture inspiration (textually at any rate) the user interface is still too awful.

So what are phones good for and how could current devices be used to make the mobile Web succeed?

  • Communication – the original ‘killer app’, but it needn’t just be voice, or SMS / email, but it could also be updating your Facebook or Twitter status, or forum / chat sites.
  • Entertainment – MP3 player, streaming content, games, web surfing
  • Navigation – most phones have GPS built in now and mobile mapping apps are widesprea
  • Mobile search – information on the go: ‘where’s my nearest’ etc.
  • Alerts – football scores, breaking news – pushed informationcan find you anywhere
  • Content Capture – photo / video in addition to text / data

My view of the ones that will succeed? The ones that are enabled by or rely on the mobility of the device and are weakened without it.

You (nearly) always have your phone with you. Most devices now are more than adequate cameras and MP3 players in addition to phones; some are acceptable as email devices or PDAs.

The line between phone, camera, media player and satnav is blurring – these are turning into realy usable useful devices.

Any sort of web browsing that isn’t bookmarked or pushed to you is a right pain that puts up too big a barrier in my view – but improvements in technologies and user interfaces (e.g. the N95 and iPhone) are making this better. I don’t buy the ‘content at the point of inspiration’ as a major driver (yet).

For me this is still the least likely factor to drive the sucess of the Mobile web, but I’m keeping an open mind. If it were to work, Google would have bought moblog by now.

Tony, I’ll probably be the tallest chap at FoM if you want to argue the point.

Open Mobile Alliance

Filed under: mobile,opinion — jaydublu @ 6:54 pm

android_robot.gifThe Open Handset Alliance sets out ‘to accelerate innovation in mobile and offer consumers a richer, less expensive, and better mobile experience‘. Their first project is Android, a complete open source mobile platform that allows full access to core phone functionality to any applications – such as accesing geographic location data with great potential for peer-peer social networking.

Will it succeed? I really do hope so, but competing against incredibly strong commercial offerings with a massive market share, it might take too long to get the critical mass to allow it to thrive. It needs a ‘must have’ killer app – the next SMS – something that ‘commercial’ handsets can’t do.

There seems to have been a lot of thought put into the licencing, to allow commercial interests to contribute applications whilst protecting their interests – it makes sense to me. If heavyweight alliance members like Google, T-Mobile and LG get behind it rather than just paying lip-service, and if there’s a good take up from early adopters developing real social apps, it could well stand a chance.

I’d be much more likely to buy an Android powered phone (a GPhone?) than an iPhone, let’s put it that way!

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