iPhone and the Death of the Mobile Web

PERSPECTIVE Regardless of whether or not you bought into the flash and hype that accompanied the iPhone's launch, Apple's newest device is important not for what features it brings, but for what it makes obsolete. The death knell has been rung for the mobile Web.

Since the late 1990s when cell phones began doing more than just making calls and sending text messages, the concept of easily browsing the Web while on the go has loomed large. But despite the efforts of numerous companies and support from the W3C Web standards body, the effort has largely failed.

The idea of a mobile Web was straight forward: create versions of Web sites that are compatible with the limited capabilities and small screens of cell phones. Best practices were established for sites to follow, and a "mobileOK" label was pushed by the W3C.

"The Mobile Web Initiative's goal is to make browsing the Web from mobile devices a reality", said Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the Web. "W3C and mobile industry leaders are working together to improve Web content production and access for mobile users and the greater Web."

A new domain name was even established for the mobile Web: .mobi. In order to obtain a .mobi domain, a company had to follow a set of rules to ensure the domain would be compatible. The registrar offered tools such as a site builder and analyzer to aid the effort, and touted a large number of registrations shortly after the domain went live.

13 industry players backed the initiative, including Ericsson, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, T-Mobile, and Vodafone among others.

The emergence of new Web standards such as XHTML and more advanced CSS were also supposed to help the effort. The technologies separated content from the markup that defined how it would be displayed, enabling mobile browsers to reformat Web pages for the small screen.

Except for large companies like Yahoo, Google and AOL, however, few Web sites offer secondary pages for the mobile Web. The issue is a catch 22: companies don't want to devote their resources to building something few people will use, and nobody will bother browsing the Web on a phone when so few sites can be viewed properly.

Accessing the Web on most mobile phones is an unreliable, and frequently painful, experience. Regardless of the costs involved -- 3G data service can run wireless subscribers $50 per month or more, while slower data plans cost $20 per month -- it's just not pleasant.

Pocket IE, a staple of Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform is largely useless for loading anything but pages specially designed for mobile browsers. Opera Mini arguably does a better job, but requires Java and does not work on many popular phones such as the Samsung Blackjack. The Palm OS browser is a relic at this point.

This is what makes the iPhone's debut especially important, because an answer has finally been found. And reviewers are heralding it as the first time the Web has been actually usable on a phone.

Apple's response to redesigning the Web for mobile devices? Don't. Instead of putting the requirement on developers of sites or creating a special subset of the Internet for the mobile Web, the iPhone simply makes the real, full Internet completely accessible for the first time on a small screen.

Specifically, Apple has included a version of its Safari browser in the iPhone. Users can load up full Web pages -- images and frames and all -- that can be zoomed in on by flicking two fingers on the screen. Specific page elements can be "clicked" with a finger, centering them and increasing their size for reading. The iPhone even opens multiple Web pages at once, similar to how tabs work in modern browsers.

The idea is not necessarily new. Microsoft is taking a similar approach with a technology preview it calls Deepfish. Deepfish is a mobile Web browser that lets a user view a portion of a Web page in a more normal view by providing a grey view port -- a kind of frame that slides over the full page view -- which can be zoomed in or repositioned with the joystick.

Microsoft has also expressed its disproval of the mobile Web initiative and .mobi, saying that the burden should be on software makers, not Web developers. But Deepfish hasn't gotten very far (it's still considered an experimental research project at Microsoft) and the program itself is quite buggy.

Apple, in the meantime, has proven that this solution is not only possible, but far more useful. And other software and hardware manufacturers are taking note. Nokia is reportedly licensing new touch screen technology, which could make its way into handsets as soon as next year. Microsoft surely won't sit back and let Apple retain the mobile browsing crown; expect an update to Pocket IE in the near future.

Even with a million units sold in the United States and European launches months away, the iPhone itself won't have enough reach to kill the idea of a separate, mobile-oriented Web. What Apple has done, however, is awoken other companies to what is possible when you go back to the drawing board and rethink an approach that just doesn't work.

Just as it redefined the music industry -- the way songs are sold and listened to on the go -- with the iPod, Apple has done the same with the Internet on the iPhone. Revolutionary? Maybe not, but personal computers existed before the Macintosh and operating systems before Windows 95. Sometimes, all you need is a little innovation to reach the tipping point that changes an industry forever.

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