The mobile web is an illusion

Here’s an old joke: there’s a man crawling around on the ground just under a streetlight, searching for his keys. A friendly passer-by offers to help him out. When they still haven’t found anything after a few minutes, the passer-by says, “are you sure this is where you dropped the keys?” “No,” the man says, “but this is the only place I can see well enough to look.”

This reminds me of the technique of leading a target, which means to shoot ahead of a moving target, so that the target and projectile will eventually collide. Basically, you don’t aim where the duck is, you aim for where the duck will be.

And this, in turn, reminds me of the current situation in web development right now. The mobile web is moving so fast that you can’t base your next year’s development plan on current browser statistics. You have to be planning for the future.

The growth of mobile internet usage has taken a lot of companies by surprise, and mobile web skills are so hot right now you risk serious burn injuries by just adding them to your LinkedIn profile. So now we are going to see wave upon wave of “mobile versions” of existing web sites, optimized for 320px-wide screens running webkit.

But that’s where the duck was; it isn’t there any more. Adaptive or responsive techniques allow you to build web sites that adapt to the capabilities (primarily screen resolution) of whatever device is viewing them. This is not a new idea, but it has taken the rise of mobile devices (face it: the iPhone) to convince stakeholders that the same web site cannot look exactly the same on every browser…and that that’s okay.

This is why I think “the mobile web” is an illusion, or at least just a passing phase. Remember when Ajax was the new hotness? How we were going to build fast, rich apps, and how we all started calling ourselves “web application developers”? Well, Ajax isn’t a separate thing any more. It’s just how we build the web.

Remember how “social” was going to transform everything? How deep integration with Twitter and Facebook would lead to new modes of customer involvement, and more meaningful experiences? Well, ditto. In 2011, that’s just how we build the web.

You know how “mobile” is going to revolutionise customer behaviour? How “mobile web developers” chortle at the idea of separate sites for desktops and small-screen devices (take two web sites into the shower?), and sit around earnestly discussing “mobile strategy”? Yep, same deal. Two years from now, we will have web devices with so many different sizes and capabilities to render the distinction between “mobile” and “desktop” web completely meaningless. The device does not imply the context. It’s just how we build the web.

A shotgun approach to mobile development (iPhone app! Android app! Blackberry app! Mobile site!) is not enough. Adaptive design for a web site is not enough. Just flipping stylesheets depending on screen resolution is pretty, but it doesn’t in itself lead to better web sites, as measured by ongoing customer satisfaction and engagement. The reality of the web is that as a site owner, your control of how someone consumes your content is limited. Companies that learn how to deal with this limitation, and turn it to their advantage, will be the big success stories of the next few years.

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