Deconstructing the Mobile Web

By Dirk Knemeyer

Published: May 8, 2006

“The mobile Web is largely overplayed hype—the clumsy extrapolation of the behavior and use of a basic set of interfaces from one environment to another incompatible one.”

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the mobile Web is largely overplayed hype—the clumsy extrapolation of the behavior and use of a basic set of interfaces from one environment to another incompatible one. As a result of this broken mental model of mobile computing, we are not taking advantage of the real potential this technology offers.

The genesis of my thesis began innocently enough today, when I was reading Good Morning Silicon Valley and saw this quotation from Gartner analyst Daren Siddall:

“Most mobile users still see their mobile phones primarily as a communication device, although they're beginning to experiment with using their phones to access Internet content. It will take another step for most users to become comfortable with the idea of buying actual products using their phones.”—Daren Siddall

Siddall is identifying a relatively linear continuum of the evolution of mobile device adoption and use:

Communication Tool Web Interface Transactional Device

“The mediocrity of mobile devices as Web interfaces is artificially constraining a more complete lifestyle integration that would allow digital technology to logically replace physical infrastructure.”

His conception is pretty accurate. I also think it encapsulates why more mainstream use of data services on mobile devices is progressing slowly—for example, the adoption of mobile devices for things like making monetary transactions. The mediocrity of mobile devices as Web interfaces is artificially constraining a more complete lifestyle integration that would allow digital technology to logically replace physical infrastructure.

Mobile devices do not generally provide appropriate interfaces for accessing content on the Web. First, their resolution is incredibly low—a small fraction of that of desktop computers, notebook computers, or even Web-enabled television sets. These days, most people have access to such high-resolution devices during a majority of their waking hours—at least in the developed world. Why use low-fidelity mobile devices to traverse the Web when most of us who are even aware of the mobile Web already spend most of our days on computers? Wouldn’t we benefit more from spending our transitional time between terminals doing things like thinking, observing, reflecting, and communicating? Generally speaking, the only reason for needing to access the vast majority of available Web content from a mobile device is long-term inaccessibility to a more traditional computing device. The fundamental question we need to be asking is: What is the right tool for the right task?

“The impotence of mobile devices for information delivery artificially constrains the adoption of other, much more optimal uses of mobile computing technology….”

Using the wrong device for a particular task results in poor usability. For example, most people still prefer to print out lengthy Web content to read on paper instead of on their often large computer screens, because reading on paper provides a better experience. In contrast, the low-fidelity nature of surfing the mobile Web prevents widespread adoption of the medium. Most people don’t want to struggle to digest content on baby-face screens when they can see Web pages in much higher resolutions on their home or office computers. However, since the initial rise of the Web in the 1990s established the evolutionary pattern of people adopting the Web for use as a communication and information tool prior to being comfortable trusting it as a transactional tool, the impotence of mobile devices for information delivery artificially constrains the adoption of other, much more optimal uses of mobile computing technology—for example, communicating personal information to other devices during transactions.

“The issue I have with the mobile Web is the notion that people would or should transfer their general Web interaction behaviors over to mobile devices.”

The mobile Web is great for communication. Text, voice, and email messaging are all very appropriate activities for a mobile device and have a high degree of usability on such devices. Indeed, mobile devices are actually more optimal for communication than desktop or laptop notebook computers are. In general, the fidelity that voice and text-based communication requires is quite low. Most important are time-based factors such as the immediacy of response and freedom of movement between places, which characterize mobile devices perfectly. The issue I have with the mobile Web is the notion that people would or should transfer their general Web interaction behaviors over to mobile devices. That simply is not a reasonable expectation—or really even possible given the limitations of the user experience within the current paradigm for mobile devices.

On the other hand, ubiquitous computing is ideally suited to replace interactions with physical media and embedded digital systems. Using a mobile device to make payments rather than using credit cards, ATM cards, or even hard currency is a natural. It would be far more convenient to use a mobile device for many other digital transactions, including, but not limited to, library cards, movie rental cards, frequent-purchase reward programs, grocery store ID cards, membership cards, gift cards, and many others. Business cards have been zapped between PDAs for years. At least for now, we would still need to carry identification cards that serve as our legal proof of identity, such as a driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, or social security card. But that need is less about the inability of mobile devices to securely serve this function and replace the physical media—the security technology exists—and more about the lack of appropriate input devices within the necessary government agencies. But in all of the other examples, the input devices are already in place and in use—often in the form of bar scanners. It would be a trivial process to shift from physical cards to digital validation, eliminating what are ultimately redundant physical boundaries. The issue is one of adoption.

“The gap between our current adoption and use of mobile devices and a potential cultural shift to largely the widespread use of digital identification and transaction is vast.”

Most people in the United States still think of their mobile devices as cell phones. But people are increasingly taking pictures with them. Many are text messaging. In a few cases—largely restricted to power business people, technology early adopters, and the young—they might even regularly surf the Web with them. But the gap between our current adoption and use of mobile devices and a potential cultural shift to largely the widespread use of digital identification and transaction is vast.

Make no mistake: these are not revolutionary or novel ideas. People have grokked this potential in mobile computing for a long time. That’s the reason why hardware companies are trying desperately to design a Holy Grail mobile device. There is a big, shining pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow. Microsoft, with their Origami device, is just the latest to deliver a big steaming pile of waste in the effort to get there. But progress is being made. Origami is getting closer to the sweet spot. Companies are filing interesting patents—ranging from innovative mobile interfaces from Apple® to direct mind-to-computer interfaces from Sony®—at a prodigious rate. This is well-traveled territory and as much about synthesizing the place-bound and mobile computing experiences as it is about just designing for mobility.

“The bottleneck: an established behavior pattern that makes us expect people to first use mobile devices in a way that is analogous to place-bound Web experiences before they will accept or migrate into a more transactional, digital identification paradigm….”

What I find interesting about this thesis is my identification of the bottleneck: an established behavior pattern that makes us expect people to first use mobile devices in a way that is analogous to place-bound Web experiences before they will accept or migrate into a more transactional, digital identification paradigm that is actually appropriate and even optimal for mobile computing. While this might be what is happening so far—and thus slowing evolution beyond that point—it does not necessarily need to be our mental model going forward or even the accepted evolutionary process for mobile technologies. Anticipation over the ROKR phone from Motorola®—which people expected, in some ways, to synthesize the iTunes® online buying-and-selling experience with the portable iPod® music storage and player, but did not actually realize that potential—shows that we can accelerate the evolutionary process, if not bypass it entirely.

The mobile user experience does not fit into the browser-like box within which people are conceiving its potential capabilities today. The sooner we conceive of mobile-computing paradigms along their own continuum—detached from the original evolution of the World Wide Web—the sooner we will enjoy the potential of a mobile-computing world.

13 Comments

McLuhan demonstrated that new media tend to imitate the forms of their predecessors until they mature. More recently, Bruce Sterling has written “the future composts the past” recycling and rearranging previous technologies in new ways. This pattern for technological evolution is well established. I can see how, as designers and technologists become more conscious of this fact, they might push their ideas further, evolve paradigms faster, more efficiently, etc. But the basic metaphor of evololution is still in effect, no? How is it possible to “bypass” evolution entirely?

The mobile Web may be overhyped here, but just visit Japan. In just one cafe, I must have seen 15 people who looked like they were Web browsing.

Patrick, while McLuhan’s observation is generally valid, it serves as an interpretation of what has happened, not a necessary model by which things must continue to conform. It is understandable that mobile device evolution began the way it did. But, now that we have the chance to see how it works and understand the paradigm a bit more, we have the opportunity to re-frame the context and “jump” ahead - as opposed to being tied to a relatively broken usability environment.

micheal, sure they’re gaga over the mobile Web in Japan, but what that tells us is that there is a desire for mobile computing experiences, not that the mobile Web as realized today is usable. To use a personal technology analogy, I used to use an Atari 2600 and thought it was the bee’s knees. But if somebody had plunked down a PS2 for me to try instead, the Atari would have started gathering dust pretty quickly. The point being, some degree of adoption is not because it is good or it is right, but just because there isn’t anything better yet realized.

People are not correctly using mobile devices, because Motorola, Nokia, LG, etc. are not designing devices, but just mobile phones.

Apple is the right example of innovation by design. Think about the remote control of the new Macs and how it is different from the normal one.

Designing new mobile phones doesn’t mean putting TV or joypads inside a normal phone, but thinking about the role and the personality (behavior) of this new object/device. For example, N92 from Nokia doesn’t look like a normal mobile phone and perhaps users could make more changes to it.

If N92 is right, what it is missing now? How users interact with new stuff. Forget keyboards and pens. Find new ways like the Ipod. (Oops, this is the old Intellevision.)

Driving over from Kobot.

I’d like to make a short comment on your analogy Dirk, quoting Sidal:

Communication Tool > Web Interface > Transactional Device

I’m struggling to find resonance, uptake, and comparisons with your aforementioned linear continuum, within one of the most traditionally conservative sectors—education.

Thanks to the foresight of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework, I’ve been afforded an opportunity to explore the context of mobile blogging within many differing organisation types, across vastly differing social and cultural groups, and within an organisational context.

Your optimal user experience pursuit rings true with me, as many within education settings regard the human-computer—ubiquitous mobile device—as a disruptive and contentious technology. The vast majority of school settings at present in Australia ban any use of mobile devices and use mobile messaging with adults in a punitive fashion.

However, there has been some uptake and, if you hang around for a bit, you will see some innovative projects unfold. Example of such include:

I’m currently exploring issues and ways of working.

It’s evident that we are on the cusp of change, and I’d welcome your feedback and input in any of these processes.

PS I’ve propagated this feed through Bloglines to my Blogger account so others may get a chance to link to you.

Thanks for the bended ear.

Regards, Alex Hayes

The Japanese do not browse the Web in the same way that is being pushed as the “mobile Web” in the US. It is a different experience, more suitable to the device and social context of its use. There is also the point of user perception: If you ask somebody in Japan about their use of the phone for data service,s they will not think of it as accessing the Web or the Internet; it will just be the service used with the mobile device.

There are quite a lot of social and cultural reasons why this is so. Mizuko Ito does an excellent job of highlighting the background and explaining it in her book Personal, Portable, Pedestrian. Well worth the read.

Thanks for the good insights, Leeander and Marc (and for the pointer to Ito’s book, as well!)

I agree with Marc in that it is primarily a cultural matter with Japanese culture and their perception of mobile devices as a means to conduct social activities such as transactional purposes exemplifed in the above article. Looking at design, it is more about design for people’s needs than what designers might think we as users want. A lot of communication and interaction done here is all about business and getting things done. RIM and blackberries have been so popular in that respect. It isn’t the Web browsing that gives users what they want. Kids text message in class and talk on the phone between class. If I wanted to sit down and read up on ESPN, I would defintely opt to view it on a nice 20” monitor rather than a VGA display. It’s the physical limitation and utility of design for the purpose that restrict current-day use of mobile design and their interfaces. Mobile phones with IP addresses or RFID integration that automatically transmits a signature when you enter a store or pass by some public service that makes life somewhat more convenient is more useful in my mind (yes, there are privacy issues). And I just want to say, I think the origami thing is interesting. I just don’t see the point. Do we really need to be connected all the time like that?

A first step should be that term cell phone will fall into oblivion and everyone will use and think about mobile devices. It is my opinion that we need to be asking: What is the right content in the right situation—for the right task and tool—for the right device? This we have to check for every customer task and client project.

Hi Dirk I come to this article a few months after it has been written and glad that I did. Good article and perspective. The mobile Web is not about users replacing their current setup with handheld devices or even using them as one would a desktop. It’s more about finding information on the fly, booking hotels, travel directions, flights, mapping, services such as price comparison, etc. I could reel off a thousand reasons why people use the mobile Web and the benefits of it. Again, it is not for general use, but more for specific information. Having said the above, it is noted that the MWI have now released their Mobile Web Best Practices guidelines, which will most certainly give us all a better mobile Web experience in the development environment.

I just was in Japan for a few months, and I was impressed that to be connected to Internet through the way I have been used to was not that self-evident. In Finland, I have been using desktop computers that are everywhere, in schools, workplace, libraries, cafes…

Even in my university in Japan, I could not access the Internet from the classroom of video and media studies, but I had to walk almost one kilometer, all the way to the specially accessed school library, to send one email. In the library, they still used quite unconfortable and old computers, or you had to rent a laptop. They seem to think that PCs are ugly devices only for working purposes. No wonder I could also have wanted to use a Japanese phone for sending that email!

In Finland, wireless Internet access is quite commonplace (at least in the Helsinki area); everybody has a monthly based always-on-Internet in the house, and even in the middle of the city, you don’t find it too hard to go to the nearest cafe or library to use the Internet for free. I guess that’s a bit like in the US as well? In Japan, I got an impression they still seemed to think the real Internet is publishing only.

Interestingly, because of the easy access to Internet everywhere, I have started to be dependent on some services on the Internet, which are actually quite useful! So useful, I could consider carrying them with me. Some use them already on their mobile devices (designed mostly by Nokia). There are services like the journey planner for commuting connections, blogging through their phones, reading and sending email, adding pictures to flickr, finding people, gps navigation… Here it’s about getting people hooked to new more practical ways to do things.

By the way, I think the Japanese like much more to access the services from their cute little devices than huge screens, as I could imagine the case to be in the US? “In the country as its ways are” as a saying goes.

Interesting article and discussion, but I wonder, could we give the verb deconstruct a rest?

“The mobile Web is largely overplayed hype—the clumsy …” This may not be true considering some of the Asian countries who live in their own world. And I am hoping to see huge changes in mobile Web usage in North America as well—don’t forget Google Mobile. ;)

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