September 13, 2006

Thoughts On Mobile Access to the Internet - Part 1

Following on from developing the mobile soccer news service I've been thinking again about mobile access to the Internet. In particular, the problem of trying to read content that's been designed for viewing on a big PC screen on a small mobile phone screen.

The BBC news lends itself well to such viewing, because with a touch of trickery it's possible to give people a link to the low-graphics version of a page, which is obviously more suited to a small screen / limited web browser. Coercing other content feeds isn't quite so easy...

If there's a full content RSS feed, there's obviously no problem - the content is there in a pretty basic, but complete form. After that, you're into the realms of modifying the existing web content, which people have been trying since the late 90s and haven't yet (to my knowledge) mastered. The problem with simplifying content is that there's bound to be occasions when you remove something that the user wants. Mobile phone web browsing is all about trade-offs: increased mobility and access to content when it wouldn't otherwise be available versus lower bandwidth and the more limited screen and keyboard interface. So I think that any such service needs to provide a more mobile-focused experience as the default - less cluttered pages with the main page content appearing at the top of and dominating the screen - but still allow easy access to the full version for when the user needs something that's been stripped out and is prepared to put up with the additional pain required to find it.

The obvious way to attack the problem would be to take advantage of the ever more common use of CSS to separate content from appearance. I think it's still quite rare for websites to specify anything other than a screen (i.e. desktop) stylesheet, but I wonder how effective it would be to insert a new stylesheet for handheld (i.e. mobile phone) devices? And if there happens to be a stylesheet for printing, then maybe that would make a usable first choice for phones rather than the flashier desktop stylesheet.

If you're using Firefox and you've got the web developer toolbar installed, it's pretty easy to get a rough idea of how a site would look if you did that. You can resize it to a mobile-phone like size (my Nokia 7610's screen is 176x208 pixels) and then disable all the styles in the CSS menu.

Doing that soon shows why that isn't a complete answer - you often still need to scroll past all the menus, nice logos, and so on that look fine on a PC, but cause endless scrolling on a phone. Perhaps performing analysis on the general content boxes of the page would let them be reordered so that the one with the highest proportion of plain text, or with the lowest ratio of text to links, is displayed first would help with that?

All that said, displaying the content on a phone isn't the biggest obstacle to accessing the Internet on a mobile, but more of that in part two...

Posted by Adrian at September 13, 2006 08:21 PM | TrackBack

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I have also found it quite frustrating and time consuming when trying to view certain pages on my phone. I will look forward to part 2.

Posted by: CellphoneSavant at September 15, 2006 03:54 AM
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