Will the iPhone Affect the Mobile Web? How?

Lots of people are sick of seeing headlines referencing the iPhone, but I assure you I don’t plan on writing about the feature set or any qualms I have with a particular wireless carrier. What I’d like to focus on is the affect Apple’s iPhone will have on the Mobile Web. I’d also like to touch on the possibility of that affect spreading beyond the Mobile Web and into our daily lives.

The Mobile Web as it currently stands

The Mobile Web in and of itself requires a different mindset when designing & developing. For instance, while you’re still working with varying screen resolutions, they’re on a much smaller scale. With that comes an entirely new set of limitations that you’ve got to take into consideration with each piece of your design. Designing for a small screen is an adjustment similar to coming up with a style sheet the browser uses for print. It can be considered a limitation, but it’s possible to provide a functional solution at the end of the day.

Moving beyond screen resolution differences, there are also functionality differences when it comes to the Mobile Web. It is a challenge to ensure your designs are properly represented on the various Web browsers available for the desktop. Fortunately, it’s quite reasonable to have a testing environment in which you can test the vast majority of OS and Web browser combinations you’ll need to target. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case when it comes to the Mobile Web. There are countless handsets in production, each with a varying degree of Web “browser”. Some should not even be referenced as a Web browser, but that’s what they’re used for. I can’t begin to fathom what a test environment for every mobile device would look like. Point being, it’s very difficult to test for the majority of Mobile Web browsing environments.

There are also numerous usability concerns that should be taken into consideration. Many concerns have roots in the fact that a much smaller screen resolution needs to be kept at the forefront of thought. For instance, in-page navigation links become more of a convenience if used properly. The Mobile Web is not something I have extensive experience working with, but saying I’m excited to read Mobile Web Design by Cameron Moll is an understatement. From the website:

Much has been written about mobile devices. Much has been written about developing websites for the so-called “standards era” of the web. However, little has been written about the two colliding. This book aims to fill that void.

I can’t wait for the publish date.

So how does the iPhone fit in?

The iPhone brings to the table a feature that has been implemented before, but in my opinion on a much lesser scale. For those who aren’t aware, the iPhone provides a version of Safari specifically adapted for the iPhone. While it is technically the Mobile Web, it works to make the interaction as close to the desktop as possible. It achieves this by providing the same websites we see on a computer, but allows you to zoom in and out using a combination of finger taps and pinching in order to read page content. It’s really quite innovative, and will more than likely have many more people browsing the Web on a mobile device that otherwise wouldn’t have.

Previous mobile browsers have tried similar methods including server pre-processing in an effort to adjust the site design before it reaches your handset. The newly released Opera Mini provides functionality very similar to Safari on the iPhone, only without the touchscreen functionality. Personally, I haven’t had a chance to try either browsers, but I’ve heard good things about both. There was also a version of Opera meant for the Nintendo DS that included a ‘zoom view’ and ‘overview’ embracing the same idea; represent the entire design, but allow zooming to read content.

Other mobile handsets choose to apply any provided CSS with the media attribute set to "handheld". This is a completely different approach which is more or less ignored by the previous method. It is this set of handsets where your Mobile Web research will prove most useful.

The changes we can possibly expect

In my opinion, the iPhone does a fantastic job in providing access to the Mobile Web. The device removes many of the limitations of other Mobile Web browsers, and will be an attractive solution for many people. What’s interesting, is that even though you’re browsing the Mobile Web on an iPhone, the only considerations you’ve got to keep in mind are those you deal with when designing for the screen. The iPhone has brought the desktop Web to a mobile device. Does that mean we should no longer put thought into media="handheld"? Absolutely not. Simply because Safari on the iPhone is very advanced, you can’t discount all other devices and browsers. While many of the high end smart phones could very well adjust their implementation to be more like the iPhone, there will always be lesser powered devices that will not be able to perform at the level of the iPhone. As always, you should be mindful of usability concerns, graceful degradation, as well as accessibility guidelines.

Keeping this in mind, there are a couple things I do feel will change about the websites we visit on a daily basis. I think due to the fact that the iPhone is strapped to an EDGE network, many of the websites we visit often will begin to again take bandwidth and load time into consideration. While it’s a stretch to even suggest it, at the very least, site owners could see that a significant number of readers are viewing their site with an iPhone. While bandwidth should always be a primary concern with the Mobile Web, it hasn’t been a primary concern for many websites in my opinion. This effect may no be very widespread, but more prominent on websites with an audience of iPhone users.

Moving past bandwidth considerations

Beyond that, I truly don’t see the iPhone having a significant affect on the Mobile Web; it embraces too much of the desktop Web to make a huge impact. It can almost be compared to the release of Safari 3 on Windows in that the event has garnered a lot of attention, but the direct effect will be significantly less. What I do hope to see is an increased interest in the Mobile Web as a whole, not only for the iPhone, but by many manufacturers as well as developers. What do you predict?