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Mobile Website versus 'The Real Internet'
June 1st 2011 -

There’s no denying that the mobile connectivity revolution is here for a while. Desktop computer sales have fallen as tablet sales have accelerated. Smart phones and tablets connect us to the digital world with a breathtaking ubiquity that has even lent itself to a new medical condition known as Mobile Addiction. Whether you find yourself on the leading edge of this trend or not, it is more important to understand that a sizeable portion of your current and future clientele are consumers of this technology and therefore it behooves you to harness the potential of the mobile web trend in order to reach them where they are.

No doubt you already understand the value of a well-developed website as an investment in the marketing and promotion of your business. The mobile website is in fact simply an extension of this ‘real’ website, albeit adapted to facilitate the smaller browser and limited feature set of a mobile browsing device. The challenge is that your feature-rich, full-screen website loses its functionality when it is reduced in size to fit on a smart phone screen and that pricey flash video won’t play due to Apple’s refusal to support the player on their devices. So the first question you have to ask yourself is, “Do I build a whole new website specifically for mobile devices or can I re-design my full-feature website to accommodate a wide variety of devices?” The answer is, Yes. The truth is that there are several possible solutions and which one works best for you is a matter of choice. Let’s take a look at how this works.

Separate websites

The first solution is to build a secondary website geared specifically to the mobile device audience. It can contain most if not all of the same content as your primary site but it may not be able to accommodate all of the fancier bells and whistles. Some devices won’t be able to support certain browsing conveniences that we take for granted when we’re in front of our computer, so it is important to keep an open platform mindset and not begin programming a mobile website that caters exclusively to the feature set of a particular mobile device. The two principle players in the mobile device arena are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. Microsoft is poised to enter this market but as of this writing is not significantly represented. Both are deployed on a range of smart phones and tablets of various sizes. Both have limitations and functionality requirements that are dictated by their respective architecture. In some ways it may feel like a step backwards to build a less feature-rich site but the importance is to get the site’s visitors the information they need.

Single website

The second solution stems from a perspective that web purists hold in which there is only supposed to be one version of the website. The argument is that presenting an alternative view for mobile browsers is irresponsible as well as inefficient because it requires more time and effort to maintain multiple sites. While there are merits to this viewpoint, it really comes down to factors of cost and commitment level because the internet is not governed by a strict set of deployment rules. The method that works for one company’s web presence doesn’t suit another company. Add to this that the touch screen functionality requirement of a mobile site may demand its redesign and it becomes a much more difficult position to hold that a single website can represent your company in a variety of browsers and devices.

Another obstacle to the single website proposal is the reality of bandwidth limitations. By building a feature-rich site for desktop browsing, you automatically impose the same amount of data required onto the mobile user in an environment that typically carries a heavy penalty for exceeding the quotas imposed by mobile data carriers. Therefore it becomes the mobile site that drives the development of the entire website strategy and imposes its limitations onto the ‘real’ website, robbing it of so many advances that have emerged and which site visitors have come to expect.

Mobile app

For the sake of complete and thorough coverage, I will make mention of the option to develop a specific mobile device application that can be downloaded onto the visitor’s device. Mobile apps solve some of the issues related to website presentation across various platforms simply because the application is designed to operate ON the platform to which it is installed. The drawback to this approach is that mobile app development is not website design therefore it will require a completely separate approach to your mobile presence and most likely a completely separate investment in order to develop and deploy it. Add to this that the app will need to be submitted to an app marketplace and downloaded onto your visitor’s device and you may find the ROI to be less than appealing in this approach unless your website is a true e-commerce site that can provide measureable revenue related to its development cost.

The best of both worlds

Navigation to the mobile version of a website is not as difficult as you may think. Many organizations using the separate website approach simply add or amend their website’s URL to redirect to the mobile version, as in M.COMPANY.COM or COMPANY.COM/MOBILE to make the navigation easy but manual. Alternatively, adding a link or button to the home page of the standard web page that links to the mobile version accomplishes the same purpose but the visitor has to navigate through the main site to the mobile site.

The alternative is a bit of technological magic that can detect the type of device and browser the visitor is using and automatically redirects them to the appropriate site based on their capabilities. This technique relies on some pretty standard type of web coding called CSS but if this proves beyond your web authoring skills it is easily accomplished with the aid of a website designer. The CSS (or cascade style sheet) can obtain a string of information read from the user agent (the device and browser version) and redirect the browser to the appropriate mobile subdomain for the best device-specific browsing experience. This method is not completely foolproof but it is a huge step in the right direction.

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