i-Dot Thoughts


So now that I've had my iPhone for a week or so, and the much heralded iPhoneDevWeekend wrapped up in San Francisco (I didn't go up, but kept an eye on it from home) I wanted to share a few thoughts about what changes are in store for the mobile web in this new post iPhone era, and what we can do about it.

Fist, I want to point out that despite the fact that one of the main selling points of the iPhone is the "full web browser", it's obvious to just about everyone that the best mobile web apps will be custom made for the device. Apple even published a development guide last week which gives tips on how to optimize websites for the iPhone. But wait a second... why bother? The iPhone isn't supposed to be the "kinda sorta" web, is it? iPhone is supposed to obviate the need for mobile-specific sites! Hasn't the iPhone liberated us from the mobile web? Can't all those people who've been ignoring the mobile internet for years now rejoice as technological progress has let them skip the need to consider less-than perfect web browsers on mobile devices? Hasn't Apple saved us all?!?

Nope... And even Apple says as much in their dev docs (though they won't necessarily put that in a commercial on Letterman).

And here's the number one reason why: Physical form factor. It's a fact of the world we live in - a mobile device generally has to fit in our hands., and thus has certain unchangeable dimensions. I've actually been talking about this for quite a while. One of my last posts a year or so ago was when I first read about big screens being on mobile devices and started playing with them myself (the PSP and Nokia 770, for example, among others). Let me repeat now what I said then: No matter how great a mobile device's power is and how much resolution it has, we still have to keep the thing in our POCKETS, use it with our FINGERS, and see it with our EYES. This means that there are physical restraints on mobile applications - both normal and web based - which apply no matter what.

This is actually why I think the iPhone is so wonderful since it finally proves the point once and for all: Mobile is different. I think the light is going on for a lot of people about this now that Apple's "god phone" is finally here. Seriously, its arrival is just what the mobile heads like me have been waiting for. MobileSafari is as good as it gets, and yet there's still a need for sites to be optimized for it. Extrapolate this concept to the billion other phones out there, and the future of the mobile web becomes very, very clear.

Now don't get me wrong, the iPhone itself is definitely a very exciting product for mobile developers - it's not just a niche product that shows us the 'what ifs' by any stretch. Having a "target market" for your cool mobile services of, say a million people at this point who are all using the exact same device, in the exact same country, and who are all going to use it for something besides making phone calls and sending texts is something that has been pretty rare up until now. Yes, there's been lots of other smart phones out on the market before - but they've been launched disjointedly, in various countries, and with various marketing pitches. How many Nokia S60 phones have been launched without a word about their ability to download new software or browse the web, for example? Lots - and because of that, it fragments the target market for developers: Some people will use the phone to do all the fancy stuff it can do, others will use it "just as a phone". This makes customizing for just that device a real risk. All the major manufacturers have marketing materials that claim that some device or another has sold millions units, but the reality is those phones are spread all over the world, which sucks. I don't know about you, but to me launching a cool new service that some guy in Slovakia will find interesting is a crap shoot - for language, cultural and other reasons. Why are we all still using SMS? Because it's one of the only services that just works everywhere.

Okay, that leads us to the following conundrum: the iPhone's browser is definitely better than the rest (I've used all the rest, so I should know - Mobile Safari is awesome) and the iPhone despite it's relatively low market share is a great potential market for Web developers. And knowing this, they've starting to target the phone with a vengeance already, look at Digg.com's new iPhone site - it's wonderful to see. But the reality is that no matter how great the iPhone browser is, it's STILL A MOBILE BROWSER. It's a mobile browser with Ajax support, but it's hardly unique in this area, it's just the nicest. And yet there's lots of people right now optimizing web apps for only the iPhone, all which probably won't work on most *other* mobile browsers out there.

This is important, because despite everything I said above about what a great platform it will be, the iPhone will only represent a very low percentage of mobile phones, and will for some time to come. Limiting sites to just one type of phone is bad in every respect - especially when using non-standard features to do it as well (-webkit-* anyone?). This is going back to the bad ol' days of Made for Internet Explorer. Dave Winer already called out Apple for restricting their reader.mac.com site to only display for iPhones: He's right both on general principal, and for the specific effect it'll have on what is still a burgeoning market - the mobile web. Christ, there's *still* way too many sites out there who's mobile version has a URL which includes the words "avantgo" or "palm" in them. Do we really want to look around in a couple years and see a bunch of dead sites with the word "iphone" in them? There's no reason for developers to go down this route. Many of the "iphone specific" web apps will work quite well on Nokia and Opera's newest browsers (Nokia's is even based on the same Webkit core as MobileSafari). And you know that Microsoft and Access are coming on quickly as well with their Javascript and rendering support. Apple is hardly alone with nice mobile browsers, they've just hit the first home run with one.

But you know all those little problems with iPhone - I can promise you, unless there's real competition in the marketplace, those problems won't get fixed nearly as quickly as they need to be. Developers can help make sure that this competition exists by simply designing their next-gen mobile sites for their cool new iPhone to also work well on other next gen mobile browsers as well.

So here's my suggestions: First, don't use proprietary CSS or Javascript in your pages. It's just bad juju all around. And secondly let's start an i-dot domain name movement, similar to the m-dot and dot-mobi movements we've been seeing lately, instead of using "iphone" in URLs and domain names. Label your iPhone site i-dot-something instead, like for example: i.mowser.com. The idea is that you've taken some time and optimized your site for the next generation mobile browsers that out there now, but not necessarily limiting it to just an iPhone. Mobile browsers that have decent resolutions, and decent JavaScript and Ajax functionality should all be invited, no? No reason to limit yourself or your users. And as for the other mobile phones? I see this as a sort of tiered system: m-dot/dot-mobi sites will work everywhere (including on the iPhone and others), and i-dot sites will require support for things like Ajax and (usually) a bigger default screen resolution.

Or maybe i-dot is a dumb idea, but the point in general is that now that we've got such a potentially great mobile platform, its in everyone's best interest to see that platform and others like it flourish, rather than split off into its own separate mobile web niche...

Just my first thoughts for the new blog... :-)


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