Musings from our founder regarding how some physical limitations of mobile devices remind him of the early days of the web.  Written in 2009.

I built my first website in 1994 while an undergraduate.  I used the Pico editor which of course required building everything using text and that most revered of markup languages, HTML.  I probably chose Pico because it was like Pine, my e-mail tool.  Of course, there was no WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) which is not always a bad thing.  Early WYSIWYG editors were pretty bad – especially the code generators – and it gave a lot of later editors that were much better a bad name.

After many hours of work and looking at HTML for the first time, I launched my first website.

It was horrible.

It wasn’t just sort of bad either.  The category of “abysmal” comes to mind, but only if there were actually enough public websites to actually form categories back then.  There weren’t.  Actually, all the sites back then were as horrible as only the early-90’s era web could be.  They were meant to run on NCSA’s Mosaic and share basic information which usually meant a photo, university e-mail and some research links.

Of course it didn’t really matter as they were being rendered on ancient university computers the processing power of which we marveled at because they could also run MATLAB, provide word processing capabilities and possibly draw some black and white images (not at the same time of course).

It wasn’t just the computers – it was the entire network.  The pages were being sent over fairly slow university networks, possibly via my SLIP connection or, *GASP*, AOL or Prodigy, and a speedy 28.8 or 36.6 modem… maybe faster if money was no object and you got lucky.  Animated GIFs (remember those?) loaded slowly… but once they did we could all get a good chuckle about the animated dog running back and forth at the bottom of the page or the dance of numerous small fuzzy rodents filling the screen.

The bad news is that there were limits, but the good news is also that there were limits.  Limitations and constraints make us think about what we’re doing.  It forces trade-offs and, possibly, leads us to a more rigorous thought process where we are forced to make choices.

Fast forward 15 years and the world of the web has less limits.  We now face a gap that is forming between what designers and developers can do and the systems users use to access those web systems. For a hopefully brief moment in our history, we are being thrown backwards as the mobile web becomes more important and the capability gap of mobile devices vs. their desktop/laptop brethren are painfully obvious.  Once again economy of design and speed are important.

Martin Cooper made the first mobile phone call at Motorola in 1973.  He first called a competitor at Bell Labs, presumably to gloat, much like associates who acquired first generation iPhones in 2007. Now we have mobile web browsers on devices such as iOS and Android devices and a growing dependence on mobile technology.  Mobile subscriptions worldwide have far exceeded those of fixed lines.  Some estimates put those mobile subscriptions at 4x more than landlines, while also growing at a faster rate than landlines.

Unfortunately, many designers and developers are simply trying to make websites that have the most flashiness, features, buttons and advertisements in an attempt to monetize their content, create traffic to their website, generate leads or meet some other business goal.  Mobile web browsers cannot utilize many of the aspects of these sites.

Sure, maybe the iPhone users can view your “awesome” web site, with some work, but everyone in the world doesn’t use iPhones.  Designing just for the iPhone is the equivalent of designing for a particular browser, instead of testing for cross-browser compatibility.  Notably, in the United States, iPhone users are stuck on AT&T’s 3G network which is horrible and unpredictable… faster than dial-up in 1994, yes, but only when it has connectivity.

Also, many phones don’t have the horsepower or compatibility to look at your flash-based website.  As a matter of fact, maybe you didn’t know your site actually crashes some browsers on regular desktop computers.  The fact that it locks up many of our mobile web browsers should be obvious.

It is time once again to reconsider what good web design is and consider anew how to best approach building or repurposing websites for mobile.  Some of the lessons of the “old days” of the web can still be instructive as we wait for mobile devices to catch up to the modern web.  Content is still king, hosted services are strong as well, but economy of design is still the best philosophy.

If the web is about content and applications to utilize that content then the central system to your mobile strategy should be a Content Management System (CMS).  I am continually amazed at how many international companies do not have a CMS.  They have plenty of content, but they horde it, serve it up in a single language, don’t repurpose it for the web and generally have poor workflows for updating the content. These are well known problems a CMS can help solve, along with a group of people in the organization committed to change.

It is no surprise that the concept of Multi-platform content distribution applies to mobile devices as well.  Mobile devices are almost a language unto themselves; they require we translate our sites so that they can be understood and consumed.  The technology is less important, but most importantly is the way we produce and distribute content and services.  This would be tedious to do by hand, but with a CMS it becomes much easier and will help bridge the gap between mobile devices and the latest web content and applications.