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Getting Mobile

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In: Articles

By Brian Fling

Published on July 31, 2006

Long promised and way overdue, mobile technology is finally moving beyond telephone calls to become a fundamental of our technology-infused lives. In fact, mobile could very well transform how we gather and use information.

But beyond the hype rumors and billions of investment dollars in the mobile industry lies a simple concept: mobile devices, which first connected us with people, can now connect us with information anytime or anywhere.

With mobile devices outnumbering personal computers three-to-one and mobile networks approaching broadband speeds, it is inevitable that we will see the Web and mobile converge. But what will this paradigm shift look like, and what does it mean to us as Web designers and developers?

Mobile is a difficult arena to enter. Unlike the Web where simple experimentation can often create results, mobile requires us to understand its present politics, patience of legacy, diverse systems and true people-centered thinking.

In this article I will help you understand mobile, including the basic landscape of the technology, the differences of various solutions as well as some samples uses and techniques.

Understanding the Mobile Ecosystem

The mobile ecosystem is immense. It‘s analogous to “The Web”—very large with many moving parts and many different technologies working together. Though unlike the Web, it isn‘t a field where anyone can buy a few books, sink their teeth in and sort it out. Knowledge and information is closely guarded in the industry, making getting mobile a difficult task.

Most importantly, mobile is a controlled ecosystem, much like a drive-through wildlife preserve where animals roam free and you see them from the relative safety of your car. You may not be able to see the fence that keeps the animals caged, but it exists nonetheless.

The wireless network is the cage I refer to. Owned and operated by carriers (operators outside of North America), theyíre trying desperately to prevent what happened on the Web to happen in mobile.

A Brief History

While it may seem that a mobile phone with a Web browser is some sort of modern marvel, the first WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) capable phones were introduced in the late 1990s. In fact, just as the dot-com bubble was deflating, mobile devices started to show signs of the Mobile Web to come.

Seeing websites focus on strictly inclusive experiences, overwhelming consumers with choices during the early dot-com era, the carriers wanted to ensure that their subscribers were protected for the onslaught that was to inevitably happen in mobile. Being such a limited device, they knew that consumers would leave for another carrier if they could not maintain the integrity of the their Mobile Web.

This yielded the “walled garden” of many mobile carrier services. This is the concept of creating an Eden for your phone - a mobile paradise where everything you need is readily accessible, on one conditionóyou cannot leave. Many carriers prohibit subscribers from accessing the Web by redirecting their quest for information to their own controlled experiences.

Why does this happen? Largely because carriers must increase ARPU, or Average Revenue Per User, by charging you for games, ring tones, videos and other mobile-only content. It is also partially due to the lack of mobile-ready content on the Web, and to the need to create a consistent customer experience.

Yet other carriers embrace the Web, by creating their own subscriber portals, known as “decks” to encourage subscribers to explore the Web instead. With little mobile-optimized content available, carriers charge subscribers by the kilobyte for loading bloated pages written for 17 inch computer screens instead of two inch mobile screens.

Operator Please! Carriers are not Operators

In North America, we buy our phones, airtime, data plans and anything else related to mobile devices through carriers - mobile providers who evolved from long distance carriers. They wave two-year contracts in front of us and promise inexpensive, subsidized phones and service. Surprisingly, this is unique to North America. Elsewhere in the world, consumers access service through Mobile Network Operators. While it may seem like a semantic difference, it is a crucial to understanding the mobile landscape.

Operators manage and run networks. While control is important, they tend to approach it with a broad vision, being more inclusive, allowing others to share or piggyback services, sometimes even creating virtual networks called MVNOs, where other companies resell airtime that was purchased at wholesale rates. ESPN Mobile, for example, is a MVNO on the Sprint network. They provide a branded ESPN phone and services like sports scores and fantasy league applications that are unique to the service. ESPN extends their brand into the personal electronics and Sprint shares in the profits.

Carriers, on the other-hand, tend to be very protective of their networks. In North America, it is expensive to deploy and operate a nationwide cellular network in such a large geographical area. You have to remember, most of these companies spawned from the AT&T monopoly which dissolved only 25 years ago. Empire protection is in their DNA.

In order to do anything in the North American mobile space you must understand, accept and bow down to the carriers. Every mobile company has a carrier representative whose sole job is to negotiate access, revenue sharing, billing (known as BoBo or Billing on Behalf of) and placement.

Let‘s say you run a little mobile Web site and you want to make a few dollars from it through subscriptions or premium content. If a carrier sees high traffic over their network to a site and they aren‘t getting a taste, your site will likely be cut off from that networkís subscribers in less than 24 hours.

If you simply want to mobile-enable your Web content, you will likely never need to play David to the carriersí Goliath. But, whenever planning your possibilities in mobile, keep carriers top of mind.

Device Critical

If the battle of the browsers wasn‘t bad enough to Web aficionados, grasp that in North America this year, as many as 200 different types of phones will be sold to consumers. with different screen sizes, operating systems and upwards of 40 different Web browsers.

Understanding mobile devices is crucial to your journey into the heart of the mobile ecosystem. Most mobile phones are not dynamic systems like a computer, with the exception being Smart Phones and PDAs where the hardware is designed around the requirements of the platform.

Most subscribers cannot upgrade the operating system, messaging client or Web browser. Software is often customized to the device modelís specific limitations. In many cases, in order to make devices available to subscribers, hardware and software components must be further customized by the device manufacturer to suit the carrier. This creates a landscape that is wrought with... how should I say, “uniqueness.”

Mobile content companies not only need to own every device sold by a carrier, they must also maintain a tester-developer ratio of as much as 5-to-1 to test functionality on so many devices. This makes it difficult and costly for the little people to enter the market.

Ah, but there is a shining beacon to the device dilemmaóstandards.

Mobile Standards? They do exist!

When I talk to people that work mostly on the Web, I am always surprised to hear the misconception that there are no standards in mobile. Maybe itís because we use “standards” to describe both technique and philosophy on the Web, however mobile standards do exist now, and in fact, always have.

One benefit of having a carrier-controlled ecosystem is that flash-in-the-pan technologies never make their way to devices. From the onset carriers and device manufacturers adopted a consistent and future-looking approach to the standards and practices of the mobile ecosystem. For example, take Flash, which exploded on the web in the late 90ís, has taken Macromedia engineers years to get Flash (and Shockwave promised before it) on to mobile devices. But unlike the desktop where you can simply release an application, Macromedia had to work with carriers and manufacturers for five years to get a mobile version of Flash , called Flash Lite, as a viable technology for mobile devices.

In fact for such a diverse ecosystem to exist it relies on basic standards for interoperability. Of course there are outliers that choose to propagate a different method of doing things, but it is not as diverse as one may be led to believe by standards groups peering into the mobile world.

With a modern phone in hand and a firm grasp of basic HTML and CSS, any Web designer/developer can create Web sites for the Mobile Web. It really can be that easy. As well, many traits of the Web beyond code can be applied to mobile, strategy such as information architecture and design and usability principles. Developers can apply standards to both the mobile Web and applications written for devices.

I wonít down play the challenges that device diversity creates, but you can meet the challenges as long as you take a flexible approach to the design and development of your mobile experience.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article helps to you understand and provide some background of mobile. There are a lot of topics that are still yet to be uncovered like mobile applications or mobile technologies like messaging and the Mobile Web. But the first step is understanding that mobile is about context, in order to get mobile you have to first understand some of the background, restrictions and constraints.

It is a very exciting time to be in mobile, while it may seem a bit overwhelming at times but there are a lot of fantastic people in a small community to support you trying to it figure it out, not to mention a lot of opportunity. Get to know some of them, start going to Mobile Monday you will find, better yet, start talking to everyday people about how they use mobile, experiment with some ideas, you never know, the next big thing in mobile could come from you.

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Related Topics: Web Design, Technology, Convergence

 

Brian Fling is co-founder and Director of Strategy for Blue Flavor, an interactive agency in Seattle, Washington. He has worked in the Web for 10 years and worked in mobile for 5 years. In 2000, he joined the first virtual carrier (or MVNO) in North America, bridging the gap between the Web and mobile devices, and has been working at it ever since.

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