SXSW 2006 Panel: Demystifying the Mobile Web

Monday, March 13, 2006

SXSW Page about this panel

Fling: [Ask who has used mobile web devices and developed for them. And who’s overwhelmed by them.]


Fling: There’s a lot of buzz about mobile the past few years. Does it make sense to talk about it now?

Shea: Is the web on mobile practical? If you’re building standards-based websites, they’re already compatible with mobile devices. But if you’re going to focus on the mobile space, you have focus on other things like will people actually use it? Is repurposing your content worth it? I know if I’m on the road and want some info, I go to Google. If you put your content out there and assume people will get to it, maybe that’s good enough.

Goto: Who remembers the “broadband’s coming!” thing a decade ago? We’ve been looking at trends (because we’re the laggards, though we have spending power). So, Asia. Japan. South Korea. Small infrastructure but past tech adoption. Example: In the UK, they get about 0.75c per content per person. Mostly SMS. Japan? $17.00. It’s definitely on its way. Finally.

Fling: Could you talk a little bit about the “walled garden” vs “open systems?”

Moll: “Walled garden:” Very controlled and defined user experience. Think AOL. The reverse: Access is not restricted. Open network. Doesn’t matter your carrier. The crucial question: What’s happening with innovation? Does a walled garden help or prohibit innovation? I think it does both, honestly. Is the carrier model the right way forward? Do we need to replace it with the open model?

Fling: Can you explain the differences between some of these buzzwords?

Goto: What do you tell clients as consultants? We’ve been partnering with different organizations around the world and taking a look at the studies to answer what is happening with mobile services. Where we’re concentrating is western Europe and the Americas. Trying to understand what is going to make or break the difference in adoption. [Shows slide with differences between 2G, 2.5G, 3G, and 4G (the future).] Developing countries will carry a lot of weight with regard to 4G in the future — going straight into 4G. Japan is launching a 4G network in about five years.

Fling: Here they’re calling it “3G and Beyond.” In Japan they call it “4G.”

Goto: If you think about voice and carrier as being about 88% of revenue. The other 12% is data. That’s worth about $14 billion of revenue. [Shows slide.] In the US, tweens (12-18) have $4,900 to spend where they want. In China? $0.79. And they spend a chunk of that on mobile. China’s a big market, but each American has 20x the spending-power.

Fling: Can you share some thoughts on the mobile web vs. the one web?

Moll: One web: Device independence. The idea is noble. Practical? Remains to be scene. Device independence: Think beyond the desktop. Screenreaders. TVs. Cars. Watches. Vending machines. Etc. Can the internet be accessed from those devices? I guess, yes — down the road. The W3C defines it: “Access to the web from any device by anyone, anywhere.” It ignores the “three Cs” (content, content, and [something]). The device independence largely ignores this. Is the experience of accessing Google on a mobile device the same as that on a desktop machine? No.

Fling: [Oops — missed it.]

Moll: On your average cellphone, when you visit a website, you’re not seeing everything. A server between you and the site does things like stripping out large images, removing Flash files, etc. Altering the page. The content creator has no control over this. And never will. And it’s hard to predict what will happen because every carrier does things differently. As a web developer, you already have to worry about your browser, your screen resolution, etc. And there are ever more factors at play in mobile. Is that good thing? It helps because it makes the download quicker and reduces overhead. So for the user? Yeah. It’s a great thing. For the content creator? It gives me another headache. So I have to come to terms with that, accept that. And the only real work-around is testing in as many browsers as you possibly can.

Fling: The number of the devices goes up every year. What can you share about how this impacts our lifestyles?

Goto: I’ve been talking a lot about lifestyle research. It’s thinking about the way people actually live and breathe. And how services and content are integrated into our lifestyle. Using ethnography. “De-pinging out.” Understanding motivation, behavior. In NZ it shocked me that it cost $0.75/minute to make any cellphone call. Because they only have one carrier. So people don’t make many phone calls. They use SMS. […] [Shows a slide about understanding your audience.] So, if you think about SMS and WAP and everything at the top layer, that’s drawing your audience in. then there’s the thin client. Then the thick client, which you can use even if your phone doesn’t have a signal — all on the phone. Then there’s “smart client.” That’s where the target should be. It draws on updates from the web and the solidity of something integrates as an app on your phone. Designed mobile devices. Wikipedia’s mobile version. And it’s not a bad experience. Dodgeball. It’s interesting how the 2.0 experience is being integrated into our lives.

Fling: WAP. Explain the differences.

Shea: WAP is partially protocol and partially mark-up. WAPCSS, as well. WAP 1.0 we just left behind. Had its own mark-up, WML, which you had to use. WAP 2.0 — out for 3-4 years, now — backwards compatible with WAP 1.0. But it expanded to include XHTML-MP (mobile profile), a simplified XHMTL for mobile devices. WAP-CSS is CSS 2.0 condensed down a bit. Taken out a few things, added a few things. They exist together. And the skills from the desktop translate very easily.

Fling: WAP 2.0 is a requirement of all carriers, as well. So if you’re talking about doing something serious on mobile, WAP 2.0 is an important thing to remember. And almost every device today is WAP 2.0. Very few WAP 1.0 devices left.

Moll: Setting aside mobile browsers, it seems like that’s where things get exciting. WAP 2.0. A-ha — I can take my desktop experience and port it to mobile devices. Get my foot in the door. Develop for this mystifying thing.

Shea: Easy to get in, but it’s a big, deep door.

Fling: There are about 200 kinds of devices in America out in the world. Demystify screen sizes, developing for different devices.

Moll: User-agents and browsers. This device: 128x128. This, 320x320. Very different experience on these two devices. How do you fit something on this tiny screen? The issue becomes, what is the lowest common denominator? What’s the lowest cut-off denominator? What are users demanding to do? And what’s the lowest cut-off you can survive to practically develop something? You can’t say, “everyone develop for this device.” So you have to listen to your users.

Shea: When you say that you’re targeting devices, that’s assuming you have a site or a layout or something that requires that kind of targeting. Otherwise, just serve unstyled XHTML. That’s another solution.

Moll: And mark-up weight. Very valid point. Develop the way you develop for the desktop — under standards — and chances it will work okay.

?: Are we in a browser war like in the 90s? Will we go towards a standard in mobile devices?

Fling: There are currently about 40-50 different browsers on different devices. The dominant on is OpenWave. They do about 20-30 of those. That seems daunting. But. Standards have been a part from the very beginning. The carriers never let any of the stay cats into the room, so WAP 1.0 and 2.0 actually work very well on different devices.

?: What is the impact of Flash Light on mobile? [From a woman who works at Smashing Ideas.]

Fling: Samsung has released Flash Light as the UI for their devices.

Goto: What are you doing with SVGT? Why Flash Light? […] Flash people have an understanding of how to create with the tools. SVGT doesn’t have the tools. We’re experimenting with both. But we’re looking at both SVGT and Flash Light. I don’t have an exact answer.


Goto: Right now it’s leaning towards SVGT in a weird way, but right now it’s a balance war and the carriers will call the shots.

?: You talked about XHTML-MP. Should we use that or XHTML Basic?

Fling: XHTML Basic is for portable devices. Difficult question. XHTML-MP was developed by OpenWave. XHTML Basic is very close. It’ll most likely work, but typically I recommend people start with XHTML-MP.

?: What’s the future of SVGTiny?

Goto: Lots of infighting. Since it’s more open source with more ubiquity, we have to see what the carriers will do. Flash Light will cost, like, $1 per unit to carry. So carriers may not use it. In the US, they subsidize the $200-$300 per-unit cost of the devices with service plans. They’re bringing the costs down because they want to bring people in to buying their content and services. SVGT needs to get its act together and GoLive has been working towards it, but I don’t know. There’s a lot of discussion, but it’s still being worked out.

Fling: I heard that the majority of SVGT development was happening at Adobe.

?: How do you compensate for the lack of interface control on mobile?

Moll: Gorgeous design just doesn’t happen on mobile devices. How to deal with that? How to make something usable and attractive? That’s a challenge. Two year from now, Opera Mini may be the standard. And at that point we’ll be able to develop just for three browsers and make it work on a hundred devices.

Shea: Today it’s hard to even show your branding. Sending images is probably the only way to get something above-and-beyond text right now. Aesthetically pleasing? Not happening right now.

Fling: Brew. J2ME. You can actually create a very rich interface with these. And Flash Light, too. Check out ESPN Mobile. It’s memory-intensive, but a very nice interface. Big challenge, though. J2ME is device-specific, though.

Goto: We also have to think of IA. Moll wrote an amazing piece about when we should create a custom design. There’s not much room for custom navigation. When we create a single mobile experience, it’s more than look-feel. Also architecture.

Fling: One more thing. From my experience, mobile has to do with the context. You can do great things with a simple interface.

?: Do wifi-enabled phones speed up that lag? WiMax? What leaders are happening in the MVNO space?

Fling: WiMax is having a difficult time with hand-off between towers. Making roaming difficult. MVNO. Disney has announced one. Mobile Virtual Network Operator. ESPN is not a network. They borrow one. Disney. MTV. Virgin. 7-11 Mobile. [Laughter.] The leader is Disney, who also runs ESPN Mobile.

Goto: History. Virgin in Europe took airtime off of Vodaphone and became one of the top three. We’re getting into lifestyle. What’s remaining is customization, emotional attachment to devices. It’s coming to fruitition. Ampdmobile. $150/month for unlimited services. Kind of a lot.

[Missed a question, here.]

Fling: It could be some years out before we see a consistent mobile platform.

?: What about wifi? It’s sitting right here and we’ll be getting faster speeds.

Fling: There’s a lot of info in wifi, like using Skype on mobile phones. From the carrier perspective, there’s more interest in WiMax. They’re putting a WiMax antenna on the Space Needle in Seattle, for example.

Goto: And the carriers are protecting themselves by opening themselves up to VOIP and wifi because they know the customers will want it. But cost of calls are going down, so they’re trying to figure out what to do.