W3C's Mobile Web Initiative: Will It Work?


So the W3C has announced it's Mobile Web Initiative, aimed at improving web access from mobile devices, at the WWW2005 conference in Japan. This is pretty cool. Want to know what's even cooler? Sir Tim Berners-Lee referenced my weblog in his keynote presentation (slide 21)! Awesome! It's just a copy of the image I made of all the US Mobile phones before Christmas last year - and he probably just found it doing a image search for "lots o phones" or something, but still that's pretty cool.

So a few things about the initiative which I first wrote about last November. First, I wonder if it'd be worth it for Yahoo to get involved as a Founder? I'd have to talk to someone inside to see if we do that sort of thing (from browsing the site, it looks like it'd cost $50k to join the working group). Anyone know anything about this sort of thing? How the W3C works, the value of joining, etc.?

The second thing is I wonder if this will have an effect on the actual mobile web. First, there's another completely separate organization which is creating standards: the Open Mobile Alliance or OMA. These guys are already setting standards and working with all the manufacturers and others to get them to adopt things like XHTML-MP (the MP part isn't a W3C standard, but an OMA one). Secondly, it takes *years* for standards to percolate into handsets. I assume the "MobileOK" designation would be both for websites and for browsers, so it's going to take an effort.

Third, as I've written before, I'm suspicious of "adaptive content" on the server side. As I wrote a week or so ago about the mobile web, it's unrealistic to expect one set of markup to work on both a PC browser and today's phones seamlessly (data-size limitations are the first barrier) and its impractical to expect servers to know about every handset out there and adjust content accordingly. Though I feel that having "one web" is an admirable goal, I don't know if you can actually do it in the real world. Look at Yahoo, for example. We have two webs right now: one for the browser which is rich with content and utility, and a much more reduced version for mobile phones. I can't imagine these getting merged any time soon. In fact I think a lot of people and companies in Silicon Valley are sort of sitting on their hands waiting for this very thing to happen, but it's really not going to.

On the last slide of TBL's presentation he mentions a shared description database. Very nice, but this only helps if you're willing to code an application server to process requests and reformat content. I do think it's viable to dynamically change a 1024x768 formatted site to fit on a QVGA screen (240x320), where the server munges and manages the markup accordingly if it knows the handset's abilities. But again, there are hundreds and hundreds of handsets out there, so this would not be a trivial exercise and not done on the simplest of http servers on which the web is built.

To me the more realistic solution is to come up with a *solid* standard for mobile phone markup and scripting that we can all rely on and develop towards. XHTML-MP goes a long way towards this, but a bit more is needed. Then we can develop a version of our apps for mobile phones with confidence that it'll work on all of them that support this standard. We're pretty much already doing this for other clients right now - I have a version of my weblog for web browsers: HTML, and another for aggregators: RSS. Now we can create one for mobile phones using XHTML-MP. Yes, it's more work, but not nearly as much as trying to dynamically support versions for a zillion different slightly-different handsets.

Anyways, I think this is an admirable project, hopefully we'll see real results from the initiative within a reasonable time frame.


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