Fellow InformationWeek blogger Alex Wolfe contends that slow wireless network speeds and shoddy browsers are to blame for the less-than-thrilling experience of browsing the Web from a smartphone. That got me thinking. Is recreating the desktop experience on a mobile phone the right way to tackle mobile browsing? Or does the whole issue need to be re-thought?I browse the Web a lot from mobile phones. Name a phone, a mobile browser, a wireless network, and I've probably used it. Smartphones generally offer up a better overall experience than feature phones, mostly due to the increased screen size, easier data entry with QWERTY keyboards, and more capable browsers.
As I've mentioned in this blog before, the iPhone's browsing experience trumps everything else out there for the moment. Even on AT&T's EDGE network. Why is it better? Because it shows you the Web on your phone nearly the same way you experience it on your desktop. Is it sometimes slower than I'd like it to be? Sure. But in the end, it is still better than what I've seen on BlackBerries, Windows Mobile phones, and feature phones. But that doesn't mean it is the best way to experience the Web on a phone.
One of the key reasons why browsing the Web on desktops works is because of the mouse. It lets you jump all over the page and make selections at a whim. This is generally not the case on mobile phones. Pages are often aligned into single columns, forcing you to scroll down, down, down to find what you want, and once it is highlighted, make your selection. This is where the iPhone succeeds. Because of the touch screen interface, surfers can navigate at whim.
Other browsers do a manageable job. The S60 browser from Nokia, for example, has a pointer that you can zoom around the screen to make selections. It also has a mini map built into the browser that you can use to find a section of the Web page to jump to. Opera and now the BlackBerry browser have this feature as well. Both Mozilla and Google are also working on new mobile browsers that will likely make improvements over what is available today.
Another issue is screen size and shape. Most PC monitors have 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios. Most cell phone screens are oriented in a portrait mode, making them proportioned differently. And they're a fraction of the size. Real estate is directly relative to how enjoyable the browsing experience is. The bigger the screen, the easier it is to navigate and interact with Web sites.
Then there are the wireless networks through which the data travels to consider. I think this issue is almost beat. I use a wireless modem paired with my laptop and I've mentioned before that speed is never an issue with it. Verizon's EV-DO Rev. A data speeds are fantastic. I often have 10 graphically intense Web sites open at a time, and am able to download and upload quickly and watch all the YouTube I want.
Smartphones are capable of surfing at these same speeds over HSPA and EV-DO networks. Speed is not the real issue.
We'd be fooling ourselves to think that the mobile browsing experience will ever equal the desktop browsing experience. While recreating the desktop experience certainly has its appeal, I don't think that should be the goal of companies that are creating this technology. What they should do instead, is focus an making the mobile Web more usable on handsets. And that doesn't mean stuffing full-scale Web pages onto phones.