The Mobile Web and Your Organization

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Jan 16, 2009

Data from Informa indicates that by 2010 half of the planet's population will have access to the Internet through a mobile device.  Should you make your website mobile?  We have heard recently from a number of organizations contemplating whether they should build a mobile site.  Following is an overview of some points to consider and resources to draw on as you consider a mobile web presence.

A bit of background: There are now  4 billion mobiles phone subscribers around the world, according to the ITU, far outpacing Internet users worldwide.  GSMA, the industry group for telecom companies, reports that more than 80% of the World population is currently covered by a GSM network.

This means that mobiles have become the most ubiquitous communication device in human history. It also means that a majority of the world's population will access the web via their mobile phones. And this means that organizations around the world need to think about what this means for their users, audience, and websites.

Simply put, the mobile web refers to Web access from a mobile device. Today, the majority of new phones can access the Web in some way.  Hard numbers are elusive, but there is evidence that mobile web access is growing phenomenally worldwide.

Opera Software, the company that makes one of the most popular web browsers for mobile phones, tracks the use of its product and reports rapid growth in mobile-web browsing in developing countries, in particular. According to Opera data, the number of web pages viewed by users of its software last year over 3 billion, a 300% increase compared to 2007. According to its monthly reports, the fastest growth was in developing countries including Russia, Indonesia, India and South Africa. While this is a proxy for actual mobile web usage, it's nonetheless an indicator that mobile web access is rapidly increasing. 

Admob, a mobile advertising vendor, keeps track of mobile ad data, another proxy for internet access via mobile.  The monthly reports that Admob provides show similar mobile web growth.

And yet, it is estimated by some experts that only .2 % of websites are mobile-optimized - a very low number.
So why Should You Consider a Mobile Website?

In order to maximize scarce .org resources, you should always ask yourself "Why should it be mobile""?  Here are a few points to consider:

  • Does a mobile presence help you advance your goals?  Does it improve your reach, for example?  Or provide information or services that people need immediately, on the go, and while not at a computer?
  • Is location-sensitivity important that provides information based on where a visitor to the site is located?
  • Is there immediate action required, such as making a phone call or another quick action? 
  • Is your target audience one that is not necessarily on a computer but has access to a phone?  


The (real) Limitations of the Mobile Web

Of course, mobile phones have limitations, as anyone knows who has tried to browse the web from a tiny screen.  Mobiles are slow, have limited input options, limited memory to display rich data, and well -- the screen size is tiny, showing only about 6 lines of 25 characters in a screen. 

Mobile devices come in many, many shapes and sizes, making it hard to test for all of them. There are web standards for the mobile web that are likely to render on most devices, but sadly, the mobile market is highly fragmented, making mobile development harder.  Features, screen sizes, inputs, connectivity, and multimedia vary greatly, making it necessary to think through how to deliver content to any mobile device's capabilities.

Cost of data access in many parts of the world is another problem, limiting mobile web use.  However, it's been argued that cost of data access can be overcome if highly valuable and worthwhile content and services are offered. .orgs the world over need to think about what that content is for their audiences.

High capacity networks are another limitation as they are only now becoming available in many parts of the world.  We expect that this is rapidly changing, however, as higher-speed 3G networks become available in India, China and increasingly many other parts of the world. Lastly, there are still limitations in the usability of mobile browsers, especially for users with limited technology experience. 

People Use Mobiles Differently

When thinking about content and usability for mobile devices, consider how you use your phone. It is very different than you'd use a full computer screen, so you need to think about what information to provide and how to provide it on your mobile site.  There are some guidelines to follow that you want to consider as you are considering your mobile presence as a .org.

These include:

  • People want content quickly relevant to their location or need at that moment in time
  • Show only essential information that your uers really need
  • Moving around is not easy so navigation need to be intuitive
  • Input on a mobile is hard, so limit it and make it very easy to input data

So, How Do I Mobilize My Site?

Once you have determined that you want to have a mobile website, have a very good idea who your audience is and what mobile technology they use, and know what content is best suitable for your audience in your mobile presence, what then are your options?

  • You can do nothing and hope that the phone's mobile browswer will render your site. If you have a simple site, this may work but if you have a site that is more complex or image heavy this will limit visitors.
  • You an remove formatting and simplify your site so that it loads faster as well as uses less bandwidth, all the while leaving the design the same. 
  • You can mobilize your blog or RSS feed in a minute using one of the many services that create a mobile site from your feed.  Mofuse is an example of a service like it.
  • If you run a blog, you can easily mobilize it by using a blogging platform for your site that has mobile support built in or, if you use Wordpress, use one of the plugins that create a mobile version when the blog is accessed by a mobile device. A popular plugin is Mobilepress, developed by a South African group. There are many others, however, and some other creative plugins for Wordpress that allow your visitors to send you SMS, for example.  You can find a list here.
  • You can use a different CSS file for mobile users. This CSS would define formatting for page elements that is optimized for mobile browswers.
  • Finally, you can create a distinct mobile site that is tailored to mobile browsers and provides the most usable content. A mobile site is also useful when you want to use phone-specific features such as invoking a phone call, for example. 

 There are a number of resources available that help you get going.  Mobiforge's Getting Started Guide is indeed a great start.  Mobiforge has a plethora of information - one that most recently cuaght my attention was one on designing for different screen sizes.  Check out the entire site for great information.  

in another excellent overview, Smash Magazine provides an overview of Mobile Design Trends and offers this advice:

  • Simplicity is key - keep it very simple and to the essentiallon your mobile site.
  • White space is important on a mobile screen - precisely because the screen is so mall.
  • Avoid images. They hog bandwidth and make a mobile site slow and expensive.
  • Subdomains are usually better than a .mobi domain.  .mobi afficianados might not like this but the emerging standars is or
  • Content should be prioritized and tailored to the target user.  Nonprofits need to take especially note of this -- user-focus is essential.

If you design your own site, Smash Magazine has these recommendations:

  • Don’t Mix Up Your Markup: For most websites, we can ignore WML and make use of the markup language with which we’re probably much more familiar: XHTML.
  • Know Your Phones: We must cater not only to different screen sizes and resolutions, but to different shapes. From short and long rectangles to tall and skinny ones to perfect squares, the mobile world contains a rich tapestry of variation that almost makes you want to pull your hair out!
  • Target the Right Users : Traditional website users are most likely sitting at a desk facing a large monitor that has a decent resolution. Visitors who are browsing your mobile website are unlikely to be in the same circumstances. They may be waiting in line, riding on the train or bus, running to the departure gate or lost in an unfamiliar town late at night and trying to get somewhere.
  • Publish the Bare Minimum: While the concept of having only one website, and simply styling it differently depending on the medium the visitor is using, is popular with many standardistas, a separate mobile website is required to deliver an optimized experience for mobile users.
  • Choose a Great Domain Name: When deciding on a domain name for a mobile website, the colleagues and companies I’ve worked with have always used a sub-domain. Creating a sub-domain is the easiest of the options to set up (you already own the domain), it’s the cheapest option (there’s no need to register the .mobi), and it means you avoid having to spend hours tweaking the server (and potentially messing up normal traffic).
  • Validate Your Markup: Mobile browsers are much less forgiving than desktop browsers. A browser running on a mobile device generally doesn’t have the luxury of a 2 GHz processor and 100 MB of disk space. Therefore, you must check, validate and recheck your markup, time and time again.
  • Test, Test, TEST! Testing your website with a Web browser on a desktop computer can get you only so far in terms of simulating the mobile experience. There are many elements of mobile device usage that can’t be replicated accurately in this way.

The W3C has a Mobile Web Consortium (Link to  that has published Best Practices for Delivering Content to Mobile Devices (a comprehensive list) (link to: . To test your site, check out the .mobi site validator.

Other testing resources include:

Some great additional resources from the Mobile Web Design article:

Photo courtesy laihiu



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