Berners-Lee Strikes A Blow for the Mobile Web

Browsing the Web on a mobile device such as a phone is a mixed experience at best. Some website designers provide stripped-down mobile version of their sites containing just the essential text and navigation elements; others make little or no effort to be mobile-friendly, meaning surfers have to download every annoying logo, photo, and advertisement to get to the good stuff. If you’re paying for data by the kilobyte—as most mobile subscribers in Europe still do—that makes browsing on your phone prohibitively expensive, which in turn bodes ill for innovation and entrepreneurship on the mobile Web.

The World Wide Web Consortium is trying to turn the situation around. The Cambridge, MA-based nonprofit organization, which has functioned for 13 years as the Web’s central standards body and clearinghouse, is on a big push this week to promulgate a set of Mobile Web Best Practices designed to enhance users’ experiences of the Web on cell phones and other mobile devices. Yesterday the consortium launched an early version of its mobileOK Checker, a Web-based service that screens other Web pages for compliance with the best practices. And today, W3C director Tim Berners-Lee warned in a keynote speech at the Mobile Internet World convention in Boston that without a cooperative effort to make Web content browsable on as many different devices as possible, the mobile Web could become a collection of private “walled gardens.”

“From the beginning, the W3C has fought the ‘best viewed with 800×600 screen’ buttons, and any design patterns which disenfranchise different devices,” Berners-Lee said in a transcript released prior to his speech. “The Mobile Web Initiative is the work we have to do now…..It is part of a general strategic principle of keeping the information which is such a huge form of capital in the world in as powerful and reusable [a] form as we can, for the future generations and people who don’t currently have access.”

I talked yesterday with Dominique Hazaël-Massieux, activity lead for W3C’s Mobile Web Initiative. He said the point of the group’s work isn’t to dictate how websites should be designed, but “to give guidance for people who want to make their content friendly for mobile devices.” After two years of work, the organization believes that its mobileOK standard is ready for implementation, Hazaël-Massieux says.

Getting the standard ready was no easy task, given the huge diversity of devices that can access the Web today, with screens of all sizes and interfaces of varying flexibility. But there are some issues common to all these platforms, Hazaël-Massieux says. “In most cases today, when you use your mobile device to get onto the Web, the bandwidth won’t be that great, and the latency [waiting time] in the network will be pretty big. And in many countries, it’s very rare to have flat-rate data access, which means that downloading actually costs you money. So one of the big areas [for the mobileOK standard] is giving advice on how not to waste bandwidth—for example, by getting rid of embedded comments that are not going to be used or read by the mobile browser, or which CSS style sheets you should use and which you should be avoiding, or making the best use of caching so that a user won’t have to reload a page that he just downloaded not so long ago.”

The help of W3C member companies such as Nokia, Google, and Opera Software (maker of the Opera browser) has been crucial in assembling the MobileOK standard, says Hazaël-Massieux. Companies are beginning to recognize, he says, that the walled-garden approach, while seductive, isn’t good for long-term innovation or profit.

“One of the criticisms of the Web on mobile devices that has been around for quite a while is the existence of these walled gardens where the operators would only give you access to websites that they produced or subsidized,” he says. “That has been hurting the usage of the Web on mobile devices, because users aren’t always terribly interested in what their operators think they should be interested in. This idea of keeping things very closed still has some supporters. But one thing Tim is very much arguing for is opening up the mobile Web as a platform and making it something that can trigger innovation.”

Rather than just being in the business of getting people to download data, mobile operators and content providers who sign on to the mobileOK standards “can trigger innovation and new ways of shaping the Web that didn’t exist before,” says Hazaël-Massieux.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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