How the Web is Going Mobile

Friday, 13 March 2009

It’s estimated that the internet has around 1.5 billion users. It’s an impressive sounding statistic. Until you learn that, in December, the number of connections to mobile devices worldwide reached four billion, a figure that represents 60% of the world’s population.

Similar figures are borne out in the UK. An Ofcom report in November found that there are 26 broadband connections for every 100 people, compared to 121 mobile phones per 100 people. These are significant numbers for anyone who runs a website or blog. As mobile devices become more sophisticated and offer far better web browsing experiences, it becomes increasingly likely that users will be accessing web sites and applications from behind a mobile, not just a desktop or laptop computer.

Apple took the concept of mobile web browsing mainstream when it launched the touch-screen iPhone in the US in June 2007 (a belated UK release followed in November 2007). In the same way that it’s hard to conceive of pre-iPod MP3 players (they were chunky and user unfriendly, as a rule), mobile manufacturers were forced to respond to Apple’s sleek device.

Finnish mobile giant Nokia launched its first touch enabled device in the UK in December. The 5800 XpressMusic includes Nokia’s Comes With Music service, which offers users free access to millions of tracks and is intended to challenge the dominance of iTunes. The phone will be followed by the more business-focused Nokia N97, due to be released in the summer. It has both a touch screen and QWERTY keypad to for painless web browsing and email.

Over at BlackBerry, its first touch-screen smartphone, the Storm, was released in November. But it’s hampered by its lack of Wi-Fi and a horrible interface. The convoluted process of selecting an item involves having to tap the screen, which sits on a small rocker, and then prod it a second time.

Other companies, including Glofiish, HTC and Palm have all come up with their own post-iPhone take on mobiles. But it’s the T-Mobile G1 – the ‘Google phone’ – that attracted the most attention on its release last year.

The first generation G1 is less sleek than the iPhone and its keys are comically tiny. Its main attraction is that it uses Google’s operating system, Android, which allows anyone to design and distribute ‘widgets’ for the phone. (In contrast, Apple only allows iPhone programs that it’s approved to make it to the Apps branch of the iTunes store.)

Google already provides mobile versions of its products, including search, Gmail, Google Maps and YouTube. And in February it introduced Google Latitude, which allows users to see their friends’ locations (or the locations of their mobiles, at least).

Indeed, the true potential of the mobile web – whether it’s being run on Windows Mobile, Linux or Unix – is in exploiting services that allow users to access content tailored to wherever they are. Location-based services are in their early days but there are already some ingenious applications available, including:

• Location-based social network Brightkite
Qype, which offers localised, user-generated reviews of pubs and restaurants
Foursquare, helps you find the perfect places to go with friends. Discover the best food, nightlife, and entertainment in your area.

The mobile web has already started to alter how we use the internet: 800,000 mobile subscribers in the UK access social networking sites using their phones, for instance. As The Observer’s John Naughton puts it, “Mobile phones will come to be the way in which most people get access to the internet most of the time.”

Whether you wish to provide mobile e-commerce, a location-based service or simply a version of your site that’s optimised for viewing on mobile devices, now is the time to embrace the mobile web. We have seen the future – and it fits in your pocket.