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• Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Everybody’s Going Mobile

We’ve all heard the buzz, mobile sites are popping up all over the place.  The proliferation of newer, web phones – especially the iPhone – is making it easier for the “I want it now” generation to search for and (hopefully) find the information they want, when they want it.  According to a recent report by The NPD Group, Smart Phones now account for nearly 20% of the mobile phone market, an increase of 84% over last year.  Additionally, the average cost per phone has dropped by 7%.  What does all this mean to you?  It means that if your readers are not already on a Smart Phone, they soon will be.  It’s up to us as web developers and marketers to make sure the pages are out there, and can be found.

What’s the big deal?

Mobile web sites are able to connect immediately with your audience, at the exact moment they are interested in your product or service.  That is HUGE!

Imagine a family out on a drive one Sunday morning when they happen upon a home for sale.  As they are in the market, they pull out the iPhone, enter in the info from the yard sign and…..what will they find when they get there?  A big, bulky, image laden beast that is 100 times bigger than the screen on the phone.  Or, will they find a simple, easy to browse and search mobile site.  If they are lucky enough to find a mobile site – you have an instant connection with them.  If they get the beast, well….maybe they will remember to look you up when they get home later.

Not selling houses?  Okay then, imagine a guy waiting to get his haircut, browsing through the stack of magazines.  He happens to see your ad for that new whiz-bang product of yours….do you see where I’m going here?  Instant connection.

It matters not why you want to connect with people, what matters is that you give them a way.

To .mobi or not, that is the Question

Actually, to .mobi or not is more like a feud.  I know, I know “What is .mobi?  Speak English.”  Simply put, .mobi is just another address extension – just like .com, .org, .net, etc.  However, to use a .mobi site, your content is supposed to be properly formatted to fit on and comply with mobile phones.  The proponents of .mobi say that by using this address extension, web visitors will KNOW that a site will be formatted correctly for their phone.  Please note the emphasis I used above on SUPPOSED TO.  There are no mobile format police.  There is no one verifying that what you (or anyone) put on a .mobi address is in fact a mobile formatted web site.  Just like a .org is supposed to be for non-profits, there is nothing preventing you from putting your web store up on one.  Of course, to do either of those would be a very bad idea.

Others believe, and I am one of them, if you want you site to support mobile browsers, then handle it in your formatting, or in your code…automagically.  Do not force your viewers to a special address.  Promoting two addresses, two faces for your web site only ends up fragmenting your market share.  Why would you want to do that?

How Do You Go Mobile?

Depending on how your Web site is constructed, it could be very easy or it could be a real BI*CH.  More likely your site will fall some where in the middle.

If you are using a Content Management System (CMS) that uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for it’s navigation and layout, you have it made in the shade.  It is a (relatively) simple process to create new styles that display your content correctly based on what browser the visitor is using.  I am one of the lucky ones.  My site is built using WordPress.  There is a fantastic plugin that seems almost too easy, just activate it and POOF!  You have a mobile site.  Is it time for lunch yet?

If you are not so lucky and have a site that is not entirely CSS then you will have some work ahead of you.  You need to decide a few things before moving on.

  1. What content is MOST important to your mobile viewers? And will that content fit on the little screen?
    If you answered “all of it”.  Stop here.  You need to be planning a complete site redesign then, not just a mobile implementation.
  2. How closely do you want to follow the Standards for mobile sites?
    If you want your site to be viewable on all web-enabled phones and not just Smart Phone, you better follow them to the letter.  Unfortunately, that means you will lose out on a lot of functionality.  If you want to narrow your offerings to just the Smart Phone crowd, you will have both a shorter development time and a more robust end product.  This would be my choice.  Most Smart Phones have built-in browsers that follow the main-stream and can view your existing content just fine.  As always, there are a few (fairly significant) exceptions.  iPhones can not view flash.  Blackberries can not view streaming media.
  3. Do you need/want your viewers to be taken to the mobile version automatically from your main site? Or, will they need to know or select another address?
    Naturally, the preferred choice would be to have it automagically.  This will require a bit of programming – not much, so don’t panic.  There is a bit of information called the HTTP_USER_AGENT that every browser provides to a web server when it requests a page, that information can tell you what type and version of web browser they are using – and in most cases if it is a mobile browser.  To access that information, you’ll need an application development tool, like PHP or ColdFusion running on the same server.

After you figure out the answers to all those questions – jump in and start coding, or if you’re not the geeky type, hire it out.  Keep in mind that even if you hire it out, you need to have answers ready for the questions.

An example of a not-so-easy to build mobile site would be one of the sites I oversee for my employer.  If you point your mobile browser at www.AIE.org, it *should* redirect you to the mini-mobile version. For those of you not on a mobile browser, you can see the mini-mobile site at www.AIE.org/mobile.  If you browse both the full and mini versions you will notice that the mini version has but a fraction of the content.  We selected what we felt was the content that our mobile visitors would want to see most, and then had to write code to strip out the formatting.

If after all this you decide that you need a mobile site, but do not have the time or talent avaialbe to make it happen – have no fear.  There are lots of companies out on the web that specialize in hosting mobile sites.

[UPDATE: I’ve been told that not all of the Windows Mobile Smart Phones can view the full version of flash, only a smaller sub-set called “flash-lite.”  Thanks @JPLosier]

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