Let’s get specific

It was sad to see the plugged pulled on Mowser, which was aimed at bringing the full web to mobile devices with less-capable browsers. I thought it was a great idea and well-executed, from someone who really gets mobile.

It did have problems to overcome though. For starters, many people don’t know that they can browse the full web (via Mowser or elsewhere) on their phone. And, if they do browse the web on their handheld, it’s probably using the amazing Opera Mini, which is an incredible (and low bandwidth) way to make the web usable on almost any phone.

But behind this is the gradual trend for mobile devices to sport very capable browsers. Symbian and the iPhone OS have great browsers built in, and can handle most web pages. So is there still a space for services that re-purpose content for mobile?

One of the reasons I bought the iPhone was for full websites on the go. I love the fact that I can browse pretty much as I do on a desktop. The only restrictions are bandwidth and screen size; for those reasons, “Made for iPhone” websites have sprung up, specifically targetting this interface.

But is it a good idea to present content in an entirely different way, just for the iPhone? It does remind people of the bad old days of the Browser Wars, before web standards took hold. There’s a great article by David Storey over at My Opera on developing for iPhone and mobile.

I recently tried out Walrss by the Clearleft, which takes existing content and reformats it into a “handy little iPhone or iPod Touch version of any website”. This sort of automatic reformatting service does get around the bandwidth issue, being much quicker to load, but it’s debatable whether it provides a better user experience.

Check out All About iPhone via Walrss at aai.walrss.com. The main headlines are served up, but not the full articles or any of the rest of the site. I guess that’s the point, but it feels like I’m regressing to using a “made for mobile only” slice of the web. Also, ads are not carried over. That may be no bad thing, depending on your point of view; it’s not really an issue for me seeing as my Adsense revenue to date will just about cover the cost of a regular cappucino, but it is for an ad-dependent website business.

I find that the Walrss service essentially mimics the RSS reader within Mobile Safari, providing much the same interface. The special sauce is that it takes effectively provides an RSS-like service for non-RSS enabled sites. But how many decent sites don’t have an RSS feed these days? So it will suit some, but I won’t be feeding the Walrss.

That’s not to say that iPhone-specific sites are useless. Rather, it takes some thought to really create adedicated site-specific mobile interface. Take iphone.facebook.com – it’s completely tailored to getting only the pertinent info when you’re mobile, and making it very easy to navigate on the iPhone. If you want the full Facebook, that’s also offered as an option. Another example: mobile online backing has exploded at the Bank of America since they implemented an iPhone-specific site. Why? Because it works well for the interface. And there are tons of other iPhone-specific sites providing dedicated functionality that simply doesn’t work very well when accessing via a non-targetted “normal” web page.

I’ve a feeling that increasing bandwidth and more capable mobile browsers will squeeze the need for services such as Mowser and Walrss. Good and targetted interface design, though, will remain a constant need.